A key principle of innovation often quoted is “fail fast, fail often”; first coined, I believe, by IDEO. In a previous post, I discussed leaders giving opportunity to experiment and try, if they want to create and sustain an innovative culture in their organisation.

Dr John Johnson
Dr John Johnson

I have the opportunity to work with some great people and recently, I worked with a colleague, Dr John Johnson, the former Head of Business Solutions Innovation at PepsiCo, who has over sixteen years valuable experience in innovation, IT, procurement and management consulting.

John, an experienced innovation practioner, shared his personal experiences with failure and, more importantly, what he learnt as a result. John identified seven key mistakes that he experienced and learnt from. If you can avoid John’s mistakes, pay heed to the lessons he learnt, they will transform your innovation program.

Mistake 1: “Dither, dither; plan, plan”

Time is our most valuable asset, but most commonly wasted. It’s really easy to underestimate how long something will take, and then you end up not completing all that needs to be done. When there is much to do, it is a common temptation to create elaborate strategic plans, research endless options and seek perfection before starting.

However, John learnt far more by starting the task after making an initial plan, and getting far more valuable learning through the experience, than he would have got from just planning and researching. John realised that he only had so much passion and energy to devote to his program without seeing results of his labour.

We need to see success, and you can only have that by actually getting on with it!

Lesson Learnt: “Fail fast, learn cheap”

Mistake 2: Postponing hard decisions until you have to make hard trade-offs

John’s next valuable mistake was not making decisions before he was forced to choose. By not making the choice early, it meant that there was no opportunity to correct his course if the decision was not quite right. Hindsight is never available before the event, so any decision always has risk.

By making decisions before he needed to, John no longer had to make choices between hard trade-offs. If he waited to make a decision, the options no longer existed, and trade-offs had to be made. Any flexibility is lost, and the program suffers as a result.

Lesson Learnt: Make decisions earlier to create options and build flexibility

Mistake 3: Deploying copy tactics and trying to be Google or Apple

Google and Apple are admired for their innovative capabilities. Innovation thrives in their culture and business model, but there is no guarantee that this will work in other organisations. That may seem obvious to some, but in a product-driven company, it is not easy to avoid making such comparisons, and John made this mistake early in his program.

After failing to build a new Apple or Google at PepsiCo, John realised his mistake. He had to look at the mission and goals of his organisation, be aware of the culture and capabilities of those within it, and create his own innovation journey. By facing up to this reality, John avoided potential disaster that reapplying another company’s model or strategy would have caused his program. Every successful innovation program is, and must be, unique.

Lesson Learnt: Create unique strategies that deliver value for my BHAG*

Oops imageMistake 4: Trying to solve your own problems

When John began his innovation program, he wanted it to exceed all the goals that he had set. He wanted to solve the problems that was stopping innovation progressing. Although he had some success, he was not getting the buy-in from the top team that he needed for the program to truly fly.

He realised that he had to switch his program from solving his problems and begin solving the problems of his top team; only then would he get the support he needed. To find out what their problems were, he asked two key questions of his senior executive team members:

  1. What keeps them up at night?
  2. What’s the BHAG*?

This helped John to create a strategic direction that solved the business problems in an innovative way, through design and critical thinking, rather than attempting to create an innovation strategy.  

Lesson Learnt: Solve their problems, not yours

Mistake 5: Focussing on the long-term

When John begun his journey, attempting to transform a culture and bring about change, he focussed on what could be, envisioning what the end-game looked like. Unfortunately, innovation programs never end, as change should never come to an end.

By focusing on the long-term, John missed taking actions that affected the now, and making the impact that was needed immediately. He should have been making decisions and solutions that impacted the short-term. Any view that you currently have of the long-term will be wrong, as the future will certainly change. You should make decisions and identify solutions that build options to allow adjustment to the ever changing future.

Lesson Learnt: Focus on the shorter-term

Mistake 6: Building prototypes, mockups, samples

Taking the best advice of product designers, John and his team built and rebuilt prototypes, modeled and remodeled mockups, all with the aim of identifying the perfect solution to the problem. However, creating prototypes, mockups and designs without progress towards a completed product zapped the energy from the team.

After some time, John identified that most often the solution can’t be created from endless redesigns, it is best to learn from working on the product itself. Rather than trying to hit the bullseye with one arrow, and reprimanding everyone for not succeeding, identify what wasn’t correct, adjust and try again to hit the target (and repeat!).

Lesson Learnt: Start building components close to finished product as possible and iterate, iterate, iterate

Mistake 7: New, new, new

When John started on the program, he wanted to bring in the new to his organisation. However, innovation is not just about new things, which was the final key mistake that John made. “Innovation” does not equal “new”, because unless “new” adds something to the equation, “new” is not good enough.

John discovered that you must look for more that just the new; look for what improves, what brings another perspective, ensuring alignment to strategic goals, and then the innovation will be successful

Lesson Learnt: New is not always good! What’s better or different?

I found these insights really powerful; they are not theories, but actual experiences that John learnt from.

Take advantage by not making the same mistakes and kickstart your innovation program to success!

* BHAG = Big Hairy Audacious Goal