Don’t “fail fast”, “fail intelligently”: How understanding failure types will make you a better innovator

by | Oct 27, 2023 | Innovation

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While “Fail fast”  has become a common mantra in the innovation world, it’s overly simplistic and vastly misunderstood. I’ve always felt uncomfortable about this saying, but I didn’t have the words to explain why I felt that way, that is, until now…

Thankfully, there is Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, famous for her research on psychological safety and teamwork. Her latest book is The right kind of wrong: The science of failing well. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this book and it didn’t disappoint!

What is a failure? An outcome that deviates from desired results.

If you’re an innovator, this book is a must-read that will help you recognise the three different types of failures so you can strive to increase the occurrence of one type, whilst minimising the other two.

Intelligent failures  ✔ (not preventable; in fact, most desirable)

In the language of Edmondson, you WANT “the right kind of wrong”, or Intelligent failures, those you’ll learn from, that are necessary to move forward. These are NOT “errors” or “mistakes”, that imply that there was a right way of doing something in the first place. Intelligent failures bring us valuable insights that could not have been gained any other way.

The criteria for an intelligent failure include:

    1. Occur in new territory
    2. Provide an opportunity to advance toward the desired goal
    3. Informed by available knowledge, and
    4. Are as small as possible to provide valuable insights.

You want to avoid or mitigate, as much as possible, the other two types, Basic and Complex failures.

Basic failures ✖ (the most preventable)

Basic failures occur in well-trodden terrain. They are unproductive, waste resources and largely preventable. They happen when we don’t use available knowledge, leading to mistakes that result from inattention, making assumptions, overconfidence, or neglect. The consequences range from inconsequential to catastrophic. A basic failure might be forgetting to charge your mobile phone.

Whilst basic failures have a single cause, when multiple errors are involved, they are termed Complex failures.

Complex failures ✖ (preventable, but harder to catch)

Complex failures, like Basic failures, occur in familiar settings where knowledge and experience are available but are complex with multiple factors that can interact in unexpected ways. This type of failure is often referred to as the perfect storm, with multiple underlying causes.  An example is when you need to get to the airport but you accidentally sleep in, you then realise that your car needs fuel, and with rainy conditions, traffic is moving slower. It’s the combination of these factors that lead you to miss your flight. A catastrophic example is the Dreamworld ride incident in 2016 that claimed the lives of four people. The inquest found that the ride had seven major faults, insufficient maintenance that meant it was “unsafe to operate” and inadequate operator training.

If we are truly innovating, finding new solutions to important problems, we need to increase Intelligent failures and decrease Basic and Complex failures.

Innovating with Intelligent failures

When innovating, you need to ensure your failures are intelligent. Do this by asking yourself the following questions, based on the four criteria, when you next plan to test your innovative idea:

    1. Is it in new territory? If you are truly innovating, you will be in new territory. This also means that, whilst you might make predictions, you can’t be sure those predictions will be accurate. You will be learning as you go.
    2. Will it provide an opportunity to advance toward the desired goal? Is it worth the risk? Will it advance you toward your goal of solving the important problem you’ve identified?
    3. Is it informed by available knowledge? Have you done your homework? Have you gathered as much information as you can about the problem and solution. For example, have you taken the time to really understand if customers need your product before building and launching it? Informed by available knowledge, have you identified clear hypotheses, or predictions, for what you expect will happen?
    4. Is it as small as possible to provide valuable insights? Given failures consume resources, you need to be smart about ensuring your failure is as small as possible to yield those valuable learnings. If you are testing your idea with a pilot, its important to ensure the insights will be truly meaningful. For example, if you are putting more effort into the pilot, including treating customers in an extra-special way as you want the pilot to be successful, then the pilot, whilst small, might not provide valuable insights given it is so different to what you intend to implement.

Want to learn more about failure types and how to reduce or mitigate Basic and Complex failures, checkout Amy Edmondson’s book, The right kind of wrong: The science of failing well. This book will be one of our Intrapreneurs Book Club books in 2024.

Need help with putting this all into practice as you innovate? Contact us.

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