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Resetting the Innovation Button

Talk to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and the idea of “fail fast, fail early, and fail often” will likely come up within the first five minutes of conversation. In some circles, you're not considered successful until you have several failures under your belt.

The same philosophy has merit for any startup company trying to make its way in the world or looking to carve out a niche in the always-changing innovation landscape. In my mind, it also saddles up to another idea I love: design thinking — “the human-centered approach to problem solving that helps people and organizations become more innovative and creative,” as IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown writes. (I'm re-reading sections of Brown's book, Change by Design , so while my body is physically in Barcelona, my head is very much spinning around things that have a distinctive Bay Area feel.)

However, I'm struggling to understand how this is working in reality among electronics companies that have thousands of global employees, hundreds and hundreds of suppliers, and costly and complex worldwide supply chain operations. How is “fail fast, early, and often” changing the sector and the way people in high tech think of innovation?

I'm sure the vernacular has steered its way into meeting rooms at electronics and technology companies, given the obvious California connection and their dynamic startup natures. I can see, too, that it would complement the notions of flexibility, responsiveness, and agility — the golden eggs of supply chain management today.

The flip side strikes me just as hard. A “fail fast” strategy appears to be counter-intuitive to the complex trading partner relationships dependent on a somewhat predictable (or at least, mostly reliable) well-oiled supply chain processes and practices. How could “fail fast” not directly impact status-quo design and supply chain innovation? Doesn't it reset the standards for designing, developing, and delivering products to market — standards that are hard to keep pace with in the face of fickle consumer reactions and the need for efficient cost management?

This is on other people's minds as well.

A while back, The Washington Post ran a column on this topic, and its author, Dominic Basulto, said, “Embracing failure must be more than corporate jargon. It must be built into the very DNA of a company.” OK, it should become part of a company's DNA, but how does a company go about doing that?

Wired posted something recently about how “fail fast” is impacting innovation, particularly from a product design and research perspective. Writer Erika Hall raises a good point:

Maybe knocking out a prototype or building a company is the fastest, cheapest way to learn. But often it's not. Sure, a prototype can tell us if the user understands the potential solution — but if it's solving a problem no one has, why bother building it in the first place?

The organization is better off finding some people who are the type they'd expect to have the problem, watching how they actually behave, asking what prompts them to behave that way, and learning how the user solves that problem currently.

Over in Asia, corporate and government leaders in Thailand are looking for ways to shift its low-cost manufacturing profile towards more innovative, higher-value design and supply chain opportunities. The country hopes to do that by applying strategies rooted in Silicon Valley, as reported by the Bangkok Post here:

The new challenges are: how do we build organisations that are as nimble as change itself? How do we mobilise and monetise the imagination of every employee, every day? How do we create organisations that are highly innovative places to work? These challenges can't be met without reinventing the 100-year-old management model.

It seems the “fail fast” conversation is gaining considerable international momentum, but I would like to see an example of how this has applied specifically to a common supply chain problem people gripe about.

How is your company marrying the idea of creative and innovative problem solving with the practical need of efficiently moving parts around the world? What's the best high-tech “fail fast” example you've seen lately?

13 comments on “Resetting the Innovation Button

  1. Daniel
    October 7, 2013

    Jennifer, you are right. We can see that most of the big companies had shortcut the R&D budget allocation because of fast technology phase out issue. Since the technology is changing/moving in fast phase, they are not able to get ROI from the R&D investments.

  2. t.alex
    October 11, 2013

    It is indeed hard to encourage the culture of 'fail fast' in big companies. People never take any risk that might jeopardize their career advancement. 

  3. Daniel
    October 13, 2013

    “It is indeed hard to encourage the culture of 'fail fast' in big companies. People never take any risk that might jeopardize their career advancement. “

    Alex, now most of the big companies has minimized their R&D expenditure and they are just waiting for new products from small and medium level industries. If they found something interesting or gaining momentum, get ahead of it.

  4. t.alex
    October 14, 2013

    Jacob, yes.. or another option is to buy the whole smaller company.

  5. Daniel
    October 14, 2013

    “yes.. or another option is to buy the whole smaller company.”

    Alex, that's happening very commonly.

  6. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    October 25, 2013

    I can't help to think the fail fast appraoch is likely to be a wet blanket on innovation. How many really great ideas are abanadoned not for lack of potential but because people don't want to spend the time to work out the kinks or to move from a first idea to something truly extroirdinary built on that first idea?

  7. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    October 25, 2013

    It's a good point. Buying innovaiton is rampant. I guess it's a reasonable way for larger organizations to get quickly into a new direction or a capability they need. At the same time, now so many smaller comapnies are working to get bought rather than actually doing something amazing that i think this trend hurts innovation too.

  8. Daniel
    October 27, 2013

    “I can't help to think the fail fast appraoch is likely to be a wet blanket on innovation. How many really great ideas are abanadoned not for lack of potential but because people don't want to spend the time to work out the kinks or to move from a first idea to something truly extroirdinary built on that first idea?”

    Hailey, companies had cut short their R&D efforts and investments. For them the easiest method is M&A, of companies had good products. In some cases they used to copy technology too.

  9. Daniel
    October 27, 2013

    “It's a good point. Buying innovaiton is rampant. I guess it's a reasonable way for larger organizations to get quickly into a new direction or a capability they need. At the same time, now so many smaller comapnies are working to get bought rather than actually doing something amazing that i think this trend hurts innovation too.”

    Hailey, am totally against that. Most of the big companies had shortcutten their R&D expenditure and having a wait & watch policy about new technology. When SME's are coming out with new technology, they try to acquire the small companies or technology. So who is getting the benefit of this R&D? always big companies, without much effort.

  10. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    October 31, 2013

    @Jacob, to play the devil's advocate though, those smaller companies don't have to sell do they? They could just take the company and continuet o run it themselves.

  11. Daniel
    November 4, 2013

    “to play the devil's advocate though, those smaller companies don't have to sell do they? They could just take the company and continuet o run it themselves.”

    Hailey, for SME's M&A is a forceful situation; otherwise they won't be able to sustain due to high competition from big companies.

  12. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    November 12, 2013

    @Jacob, it is certainly a case of Jack and the giant.

  13. Daniel
    November 12, 2013

    Hailey, we can say it as a win-win situation, if they are properly encashing.

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