There is a mantra in Silicon Valley, fail quickly, which means, in short, that you realize quickly that what you hoped to do just isn’t going to work and move on. While fail quickly is a provocative phrase, I think it downplays what companies should be doing which is to experiment quickly, which my co-authors and I call creative agility.
Creative agility is the organizational ability to test and refine ideas through quick experiments, reflection, and adjustment. Creative agility drives an aspect of the innovation process – discovery-driven learning. The best solution for a problem rarely appears quickly. More often the solution to a problem emerges from vigorous and proactive trial-and-error set of experiments and the learning the experiments produce, often from efforts that don’t initially succeed. Notice here that “efforts that don’t initially succeed” sounds a lot like failure – but they are not!
The big idea behind creative agility is to iterate through a series of lightweight test projects to see whether an idea is going to work. First you try thing one and see what happens. Did it work perfectly right out of the gate or were there unforeseen issues? Based on what you learned from your first attempt, you adjust what you try on your second attempt. Again, you stop and ask did thing two work perfectly out of the gate, or were there unforeseen issues? Repeat.
You can argue that attempt #1 was a failure because it didn’t work. But if the attempt was setup properly, the word failure doesn’t even apply here because the attempt was simply a trial run to get feedback (not a pilot!) and the point was to learn something about what to do next. The only situation where this attempt could be considered a failure is if no data was gathered and you end up with no information on what to correct. However, if you do a reasonable job of information gathering, then the attempt was a success, because now you know what you need to do to adjust the next experiment.
If you are launching a big, expensive pilot project and it doesn’t work, that is a failure. You shouldn’t be launching a pilot until you have done a bunch of experiments to refine what is going to work and what is not going to work so that when the pilot launches it’s almost certainly going to work. Perhaps we should call failures at the pilot level, macro failures, and these are indeed failures – they are publicly visible and they cost a bunch of money. Let’s call the work leading up to a pilot “experiments”.
In summary, there are big failures (pilots) and experiments. Done properly, the experiments are not failures, they are information gathering tools so that when you do launch your product, the likelihood of a failure is dramatically reduced. And when done well, iterative, light weight, experiments will get you to your successful product launch much more quickly.