Redefining Failure

May 12, 2010  

I view life as a series of experiments.  When you look at it through this lens, failure means something completely different.

One definition of an experiment is: “A test or investigation, especially one planned to provide evidence for or against a hypothesis.”

The only way an experiment can fail is if you don’t get the evidence.

Even if the evidence proves your hypotheses was wrong, the experiment itself was a huge success.

When you view innovation through the lens of experimentation, it redefines failure.

When developing new ideas, the best approach (especially when there is “market” uncertainty) is to create small experiments that can be scaled over time.

The experiment can give you one of four outcomes:

  1. Our hypothesis was validated by the experiment.  Let’s make a larger investment in a larger experiment.
  2. Our original hypothesis was wrong, but we found a different direction that looks promising.  Let’s create a new experiment with the new hypothesis.
  3. Our original hypothesis was wrong and we should kill the idea.
  4. Our experiment did not give us enough data to determine whether or not the hypothesis was correct.

Of these four outcomes, only the last one is a failure.  With the other three, the experiment was successful.  It either confirmed that we are on the right path or it stopped us from making further investments.

The problem with some innovation efforts is that insufficient data is gathered throughout the process.  Experimentation is not the mantra.

When you view innovation as a series of experiments, you must make sure that the experiments don’t fail.  It is totally fine if your hypotheses are invalid, as long as you determine that early in the experimentation process.

P.S. One book I really like is “The Science of Success” by Charles Koch.  The entire book is about how experimentation made Koch Industries one of the most innovative – and successful – companies in history.

P.P.S. I just watched an excellent episode of Mythbusters where Adam Savage talks about this very topic: “Failure is ALWAYS an option.

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2 Responses to “Redefining Failure”

  1. You Failed! What’s Next? | Business Innovation Speaker and Consultant Stephen Shapiro on May 24th, 2010 10:17 am

    [...] my previous blog entry, I discussed how to redefine failure. The model proposed was to treat everything like an experiment.  While using this mindset, failure [...]

  2. Pilots Are Not Experiments | Business Innovation Speaker and Consultant Stephen Shapiro on July 16th, 2013 8:05 pm

    [...] In previous blog entries, I discussed why you need to make your innovation a form of experimentation. [...]