This article is the second part of a series of fives articles on mistakes to avoid when managing a disruptive project, extracted from my new book “A Manager’s Guide to Disruptive Innovation”.
Because the innovation process is so complex and uncertain, entrepreneurs continually ponder over the ideal approach to an innovation project. Today, some recommend an approach called “fail fast, fail early”. In essence, the idea is that since entrepreneurs cannot really know where they are going, then they should just try something quickly to see if it works, and if it does not work, give up and try something else. This idea is appealing: it calls for open-mindedness and flatters the entrepreneur by highlighting his or her ability to make difficult decisions. However, for a start-up entrepreneur as well as for an existing business, this attitude is dangerous because it is built on an implicit but erroneous premise concerning the innovation process.
Innovation is a social process in which the action of the innovator or the entrepreneur is to create a value network consisting of a set of players (customers, suppliers, consultants, partners, regulators, etc.) who become stakeholders in the project. The social nature of the innovative process renders it complex and tedious. One by one, stakeholders must be convinced to engage in the project.
The metaphor of the bridge I used in the previous part of this series is only partly applicable to the innovation process because the construction company knew in advance how many pillars were to be built. To use another metaphor, the process of innovation is rather like what some filmmakers do: they improvise and write parts of the script as they film the movie. Only when the movie is finished do they see the result, and similarly only when an innovative project succeeds does clarity appear.
The more disruptive a project is, the more uncertain is the environment in which it develops. In an uncertain environment, the trial and error approach often works poorly. Something can fail, but it may be nevertheless advantageous to continue. Nespresso failed twice in the launch of its product and only succeeded the third time, after 21 years of development! If Nestlé had applied the theory of “fail early”, Nespresso would never have seen the light of day.
The problem of impulsively following the credo “fail fast in order to try something else” is not only risking giving up too early, but also risking giving up for the wrong reasons and not creating a sufficient space to be able to learn valuable lessons from the first failure. It is also necessary to identify those who are not interested the success of the innovation project, because they will be the first to use the credo “fail fast”, in order to justify stopping a project.
To learn more about the long and tortuous development of the Nespresso project, read my article here.