Product Innovation Requires Commitment…to Failure
When it comes to product development innovation, failure is not an option. It’s mandatory.
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The topic of failure has been so popular over the past few years, some will argue it’s passé.
For example, if a startup hasn’t unlocked its failure achievement badge...is it really a startup? Failure is so accepted that startup founders can even attend FailCon: a global conference to discuss failure.
When it comes to product development innovation, failure is not an option. It’s mandatory. But before making failure your bestie, and suggesting you go together like peas and carrots, it’s critical to make sure everyone in your organization is aligned on failure.
Most organizations talk about failure positively as a concept. But too many of those organizations still see it as a negative, unacceptable outcome when it happens in their building.
So make sure senior management understands that, despite the initial impact it may have, failure has a positive impact on a project’s outcome. Protip: When explaining anything to senior management, don’t talk too quickly, use a lot of pictures and at least one buzzword.
Business Icon Peter Drucker said that “unless a commitment is made, there are only promises and hopes, but no plans.” So if your management is committed, you must organize a plan for how your team will respond to failure.
A Fail-Safe Plan to, uh, Fail
Technologies will fail. Timelines will lengthen. But having a fail plan in place protects your team and allows them to thrive on changes. They’ll be ready for any number of issues.
- Feature Creep: Whether you are altering existing features, removing or adding to the mix, changing product features will upend your program. But don’t worry, the intention is to ultimately increase the success of your product. Don’t fool yourself … if your project doesn’t have Major Mission Creep or Sargent Scope Creep trying to join the party… ask yourself why no one is excited about the possibilities for what the end result could become.
- Alternative Manufacturing Techniques: First, realize that making physical things is hard. Second, realize you have many ways to make them, and you don’t have to jump into capital intensive tooling on day one. You can machine, print, vacuum form, bend, etc., to get a small number of sample parts to vet your design before you invest months and capital dollars in tooled parts. In most cases time is critical, and using alternative manufacturing techniques lets you get the prototype in front of people months faster than you might have otherwise.
- Different Applications/Markets: What if prototype testing shows your new product does not appeal to your audience or it can’t be applied as you originally defined? That doesn’t mean your work to date can’t be reapplied for other uses in other markets. It just means the result didn’t align with the original hypothesis.
- Redesign: Failure may bring your project to a grinding halt. Instead of making adjustments to your product, what will happen if you hit reset and, literally, go back to the drawing board? The earlier you are in the stage gate process, the easier this decision will be to make. But always keep the customer in mind if you’re deciding to push forward. Pushing forward may help get the idea to market faster. But will it still address the customer’s need?
To truly innovate, to develop new things and not just incrementally improve existing products, you have to try things that may not, or should not, work. You have to think like a scientist…or maybe even a MythBuster. Scientists view failure differently. They are comfortable with the idea of conducting an experiment, observing the results and learning from them.
This will create situations where your experiment fails and achieves an outcome that isn’t what you desired. This can be a good thing. Post-it® Notes were the result of a failed experiment. But for your innovation program to succeed, you must first build a culture that can handle and support this mindset.
You’ll Find the Right One Among the Wrong Ones If a company does view failure as a negative, it’s probably because they do not have a culture of learning.
To do this, teams must have the time and resources available to learn from the industry, observe end users and to test and share new concepts. All of them will not work. But quickly testing many small concepts early on is the fastest, simplest and least expensive way to identify the “right” one.
A culture of learning also requires the right mindset for management. They should be close enough to guide your team through the key needs of the business and to keep them focused. But they also need to resist providing too much prescription within this guidance.
Think of the culture-building process like raising a child. You have to provide room to learn by doing and experimenting. You cannot do it all for your team. Though I do advise watching them around electricity….engineers don’t react well to the unintentional application of excessive voltage.
It’s worth pointing out that there is one kind of failure that is bad: having the same failure twice. Peter Drucker said: “If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.” Having the same failure twice means you tried again using the exact. same. approach. It means you aren’t learning from your tests.
Startups may consider the discussion of failure passé. And some companies may view it as a negative. If you are really going to do new things, and not speak in buzzwords or HBR articles, think about how you can change your culture to support a team of students and scientists.
Reducing the Pain & Expense of Contingency Plans
Creating a fail plan that accounts for every possible contingency is difficult. But if your plan addresses the following needs, you’ll be able to respond to most anything.
- Embrace Failure: Talking about failure and having it happen are two different things. Breaking down team members’ fear of failure is important. They will assume it’s the kiss of death for their project. They need to understand why that’s not the case. This will build trust between engineering teams, management and senior management.
- Learn from Tests: Building in methodologies to capture data, to review and discuss it and then to share your findings ensures the team will truly learn from the findings. It also keeps everyone focused on a failure’s outcomes and the next steps in a project instead of the failure itself.
- Drive Transparency: Everyone needs to be able to express their ideas. To drive open communication and early buy-in from management, show concepts early and often. This also helps you fail early on in a project when it’s less expensive. It’s also key that management communicates their willingness to take risks to the team and push the team when it becomes too risk averse.
Concepts become more detailed, and expensive, as they evolve. To make sure transparency doesn’t drive up your costs, consider the materials you’ll use to show concepts. Starting with sketches is smart before using foam and cardboard. From there, consider using wood before 3-D printing. Then it’s on to machined parts.
If you are going to do new things…plan that you will have failures. But think like an adrenaline junkie. How do you get to that failure as fast as possible while, at the same time, giving the project a chance to succeed before pulling the rip cord and parachuting to the next iteration?