Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Get Off the Couch: Agility, Innovation and Failure

After a three-year hiatus spent living and breathing supply chain finance and building a truly exceptional global marketing team, I am re-launching Working Girl.  This is slightly ironic as I am not currently working per se, nor looking for a job.  However, after some reflection I realized Working Girl is my brand when writing about all things talent management, organizational development or human motivation. My latest blog post is about innovation.

Fail fast, learn, try again.  Catchy, huh? 

According to experts, embracing failure makes you more agile because – amongst other things - those who fear failure hesitate to act, and it’s rare to be hesitant and agile.  It’s like you can’t be an Olympic gold medalist and a couch potato, although you can sit on your couch and watch the Olympics.  Similarly, some organizations try to implement agility without getting up off the couch.

Although the ‘agile organization’ promises a long-awaited alternative to heavy processes that erode motivation and stifle innovation, it also gets used as a rationale to introduce uncoordinated workstreams; to cherry pick projects (and avoid all that boring stuff like planning and execution); or to spin underwhelming results as success.

It seems I’m not the only one on the fence about agility because while some experts sing the praises of failure in the innovative organization, others ask why innovation rarely occurs even at companies that embrace the whole 'fail fast' thing.

In a rapidly changing and competitive world, it makes sense to strive for holocracy instead of hierarchy; collaborative networks instead of siloes; rapid experimentation instead of fear of failure; participation instead of central decision making; bottom up brainstorming instead of top down directives; and innovation instead of stagnation. 

It’s easy to get buy in, too, because no one’s going to say, ‘Let’s not try new things.  Let’s not collaborate.  Let’s not innovate.’ 

It sounds great but…

I worked for ten years at a very disruptive and successful start-up where no one ever talked about failing, let alone failing fast.  I mean, sure, if you had to fail better do it quickly but the goal was to succeed with careful planning followed by rapid, coordinated execution.  Failure was acknowledged and usually forgiven but it wasn’t in any way romanticized. 

OK, there was this one senior exec who’d get up at each all hands meeting with a self-deprecating grin and say, ‘Yeah, we should have seen that coming,’ which we all found hilarious.  Good times.

I absolutely believe huge success can happen by trying lots of things – the lucky punch - but I also believe greater success is possible with ruthless prioritization and proper planning.  You may miss the lucky punch but trying out lots of free floating ideas without a cohesive strategy has a high opportunity cost and adds complexity to a shaky foundation. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm believer in cross-team collaboration, iterative learning and letting people make mistakes.  Simply put, since top down decision-making and fear of failure are innovation killers, if you want to innovate and move fast you need to break down siloes, decentralize decision-making and make it OK to fail.  However…

My point is that how you do it matters.  Good execution and alignment can make all the difference between spectacular and underwhelming results.  Here are a few pointers from the trenches:

  • Have a cohesive strategy: A strategy is not a vision or a statement of intent, it’s an execution plan to achieve your goals.  If there isn’t a coordinated execution plan, people will come up with their own, which is how you end up with siloes and competing priorities.
  • Find the right balance: You can’t just innovate, unless you’re Thomas Jefferson working alone with independent finances.  You still need to do the business as usual stuff to be successfully innovative.  Some innovative companies tackle this by creating dedicated teams focused on new frontiers, others by dedicating a certain amount of time to pure innovation each week. 
  • Don’t just pile more stuff on: A common mistake companies make when introducing agile processes is to introduce them on top of everything else rather than ruthlessly re-prioritizing to allow people to focus on innovation.  A good rule of thumb is that if people are too busy to think, they’re probably too busy to innovate. 
  • Make it OK to say no: When companies decentralize decision making to empower people to say yes, they sometimes forget to empower them to say no.  In lean organizations iterative experimentation tends to put the highest burden on a subset of folks – in marketing this may be the creative team, for example.  Every great idea has an opportunity cost.
  • Don’t diss the boring stuff: I’ve seen failure being celebrated as ‘learning’ while solid successes were ignored, and it wasn’t pretty.  Good people felt overlooked and upset.  The folks who keep the lights on while the innovators are off innovating also deserve to be celebrated.
  • Keep your powder dry: I remember discussing a high-ticket dinner event for decision makers in an industry we weren't even targeting.  It turned out the organizer wanted to try that venue and proposed the event as an innovative experiment.  The key takeaway here is that self-optimization isn't innovation and steals resources needed for real innovation.
  • Manage the process: I haven't yet seen an organizational model that eliminates the need for good leadership.  Someone needs to support teams, curate ideas, communicate the strategy, balance the workload, manage the budget, coordinate execution to eliminate duplication of effort, hold people accountable and ensure everyone has an opportunity to contribute.  
  • Measure things that matter: Your website traffic increased 12%.  Your industry event attracted 150 people.  Your new white paper was downloaded 800 times.  You met your 3x coverage for lead targets. Great but so what?  Will it help you provide better service and – ultimately - sell more? 
  • Listen to the naysayers:  Some naysayers are a real drag and seem to be against anything new.  Ignore them, but don’t ignore the input of people who have valid concerns about proposed changes.  Addressing these concerns – or at least considering them with an open mind – may help you avoid serious challenges down the road. 

At the end of the day, innovation has more to do with culture and mindset more than strategy or process.  If your culture isn't innovative, your outcome won't be either.

Picture courtesy of Innovation Labs.


  1. Glad to see you back with us, Laura! Was actually reading something you wrote a few years back and didn't realize you restarted the blogging until I clicked over to the site. :+)

  2. Thanks Ben for the read and the comment! Much appreciated. ­čśŐ

  3. My spouse and I stumbled over here from a different web address and thought I might as well check things out.

    I like what I see so i am just following you. Look forward to looking over your web
    page yet again.


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