You can go FAR if you avoid the FOGS
Agile concepts have permeated a wide variety of Business domains and Sectors for at least 80 years, making a first high-profile appearance in the 1940s when Toyota implemented a Kanban-based workflow planning system to increase efficiency and – in particular – to reduce delays caused by bottlenecks in multi-step manufacturing processes.
In the last 30 years, Agile software development techniques and methodologies have made their way into the mainstream. More recently, even the biggest and most hierarchical organisations in both Corporate and Government sectors have begun to adapt Agile techniques to a wide variety of processes – including outside the obvious Manufacturing and Software Development candidate areas.
One of the most recent – and perhaps the most outwardly unsuitable – area where Agile principles and techniques are being applied is the area of Product Innovation. Kanban, Lean and JIT processes are ideally suited to predictable, repeatable processes like Manufacturing. Product innovation is anything but predictable or repeatable.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Agile mindset, and perhaps one of the most difficulty to adopt (culturally) for many businesses is the permission – and in fact almost the demand – for failure. This can seem counterintuitive for people from some areas of “the business” but it is relatively easy to understand in others (for the record, “the business” can literally be any business but it does not mean that ‘all aspects of every business’ are viable candidates for Agile approaches).
When it comes to failure in Agile and Innovation, the mindset is not simply “we must fail”. Rather, it is an understanding that failure is sometimes to be expected (and even encouraged!). The subtle difference in the fail-early mindset is:
If we’re going to fail – which is always possible – then let’s fail as early as possible. It’s less costly that way. And then let’s learn from that failure.
Logically, this mindset should not only encourage failure but – when failure does happen – encourage individuals and teams to communicate it as early as possible. This speeds up the feedback loop, allowing that failure to be digested, understood and responded to as early as possible. In some corporate cultures, especially within highly beurocratic or hierarchical organisations, that can be difficult to achieve, psychologically as much as – and possibly more than – procedurally.
However, for the Agile mindset to become the norm (in areas where it makes sense), the failure-avoidance culture must change. This does not mean failure should be the target. Instead, it means that people should not actually avoid making attempts for fear of failure and should not avoid communicating their failures. In addition, failure should not only be seen as an opportunity to learn, adjust the parameters and try again to achieve the desired outcome but the unexpected outcomes of any failure should themselves be examined for unexpected opportunity.
A key philosophy should be:
Bad news should travel faster than good news, especially upwards.
If individuals or teams are afraid to communicate their failures for fear of blame or punishment, this will not prevent a given failure: it has already happened. Instead, it will limit opportunities for the individual, the team and the organisation to learn from that failure.
To encourage the right mindset, blame for failure should never be apportioned to an individual or team. Fingers should never be pointed. Failures should never be used to criticise or penalise. Failures are simply the logical outcome of a given set of circumstances and the knowledge, experience and facilities available at a given time. One way to do this is to change the terminology. Instead of ‘failure’, the phrases ‘unexpected outcome’ or ‘unpredicted result’ are logically more useful.
By taking this approach, individuals and teams are not only freed from the fear of failure. Their mindset will adjust over time so that the natural inclination is to at least try… and then look for learning opportunities in any unexpected outcome.
Whether it be an experiment, development of a piece of technology or development of a new product or feature, unpredicted outcomes are not failures. They simply produced a different result than expected. And this might not be a bad thing.
The history of innovation is littered with ‘unexpected outcomes’ that led to everything from (literally) the colour purple to Kellogg’s Cornflakes, from Penicillin to Post-It notes, from the Microwave to the Cardiac Pacemaker and from X-Rays to Radioactivity. Throw in Superglue, Velcro, Wheaties, the Slinky, Viagra, LSD and Insulin for good measure. The list of ‘unexpected outcomes’ is wide and deep. Some were trivial and others changed the world in ways that could never have been predicted.
And this list doesn’t even include the ‘unexpected outcomes’ that led to learning that, in turn, led to better understanding of the task at hand and then led to eventual success. We rarely get to hear about these… they are just the necessary steps along the way.
What they all had in common was the opportunity to carry on, increase their knowledge, refine their processes or adjust their expectations despite (or because of) these ‘unexpected outcomes’. They were not fired. They were not deterred (although they were sometimes ridiculed… but the times were different!) and they either continued with their ‘attempts to achieve a desired outcome’ or adjusted what the ‘desired outcome’ might be.
Who knows how many ‘unexpected outcomes’ – which may have led to breakthroughs in literally any walk of life – were not reported upwards and how many missed opportunities went begging? Who knows how many innovative ideas – trivial or life changing – were never realised because the people with the idea were too afraid of failure to even think about starting?
In the traditional Corporate world (as opposed to those pesky disruptive newcomers), leadership is beginning to understand that experimentation, innovation, creativity and inspiration need a more fluid, flexible and permissive structure than old-school, top-down, fear-driven, do-no-wrong hierarchical management.
In addition, techniques that might work well in Lean and Just-in-Time planning in the Manufacturing world simply do not facilitate the mindset required for inspirational innovation. It is simply not possible to devise a ‘plan’ to be followed that will guarantee successful inspiration. It is even less logical to put a plan in place to control inspiration or creativity.
- Week 1: Think about some things.
- Week 3: Come up with an idea.
- Week 3: Do some activities.
- Week 4: Present successful outcome.
It just doesn’t work like that. Ideas can come at any time and wise Leaders will realise that they should allow (appropriate) teams and individuals (appropriate) flexibility and fluidity to give them the time they need.
Not many people, even among the Project function, realistically think a Project Plan can be written that is guaranteed to lead to Innovation or Creativity. However, the old ‘Project’ approach to Corporate Project planning still has a place, of course, particularly in putting the necessary resources, facilities and opportunities in place to allow for innovation to be attempted. In addition, traditional Corporate functions (Finance, HR etc) also have a part to play in creating a culture and workplace that actively encourages innovation, celebrates attempts and even rewards failures (although, ironically, Corporates will need to be creative and innovative in finding ways to do this effectively!) In order to encourage a F.A.R. (‘Fail And Retry’) mentality and avoid the F.O.G.S (‘Fear Of Getting Started’).
To go FAR, people must first get past the FOGS and leadership can clear the FOGS Simply by saying “Go for it… Who knows what’re it might lead?”