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How to fail fast (but not too fast)

By February 12, 2019 No Comments
How To Fail Fast

One of the most compelling features of lean product and process development is the use of set-based approaches to arrive at the best options for new products. This can be applied to the whole product or to a product feature. Explore the whole design space to find as many options as possible, use the data from your previous experiments, simulations and computations, or conduct new ones, and use the results to eliminate inferior alternatives and determine what is feasible and what would meet the customer needs and expectations. The scientific method, good engineering practices, modelling and simulation and decisions based on knowledge all reduce the time and cost to bring the new product to the plant and to market. Good stuff!

That leaves us with the question, how might we enrich that set of starting options? How do we make sure that we are not missing a potential innovation? And how might we design the best, fastest experiment (the experiment that gives the most “bang for the buck”)?

This is especially challenging, because as humans, we are wired to avoid things that are new, and especially if those new things (ideas) come from other people. “Not true!” you may say. “I love innovation! I thrive in change!” After all, we got into the business of product development because we love innovation. And maybe you are that rare person who welcomes and explores every idea. For the rest of us, it is important to recognize that our brains resist change, and the way they deal with the complexity of the world is to filter out and reject information that doesn’t fit with our current mental model. The fast pace of business means we feel the need to make quick decisions, often based on our gut feelings – rather than methodical exploration of the design space or fair experimentation. But what is that “gut feeling?” Often, it is an internal story about past experiences. This can also be described as a cognitive bias. We are often unaware of our cognitive biases. We hear ourselves say, “That will never work,” or “We tried that before – it failed,” without realizing what we are doing. The moment may pass, and a promising idea that could become a valuable option to explore has been quickly and quietly killed. And we may feel that we have done a good job, because early “quick kills” are a hallmark of good lean product development.

There a lot of techniques for ideation. But coming up with ideas is only the first step. Before an idea can be an option to consider in our lean product development process, it must be recognized, developed, and improved.

Note that the higher you are in an organization, and the more experience you have, the easier it is for you to inadvertently (or intentionally) kill an idea before it can become an option. No matter your level, the skill of nurturing those new ideas is valuable.

Here are five tips to help you advance innovation and build strong sets of product development options.

  1. Seek ideas. Ask for them. All the time. Demand them from yourself and others.
  2. Listen to your gut. When your gut says, “No, that will never work,” ask the owner of the idea to tell you more about the idea. And then make sure the idea is tested early and fairly. Your gut is no substitute for data.
  3. Allow yourself to imagine the possibilities that could result if the idea did work. Thinking of possibilities engages you in wanting to foster the idea. This may seem like the most anti-lean thing you could do, but it is the first step in a mental process that hallmarks true innovators – the ability to shift thinking to a positive approach that encourages the next idea and strengthening of the current idea.
  4. Be ready to learn from the idea – if it does fail, what does that teach you that will strengthen your next experiment?
  5. Develop techniques for strengthening ideas. An inital idea might be a poor option to solve the current problem, but when the idea’s own problems have been solved, or it has been combined with other ideas it might be just the right thing.

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