There is Good Failure and Bad Failure

2 years ago

This post was co-authored by Aaron Haubert

The cult of failure in Silicon Valley is misleading. People celebrate everything from failing early to failing quickly to failing cheaply to failing forward — whatever that means.

Here’s the truth: you can’t succeed by failing. Or, as billionaire entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel likes to say…

Failure is massively overrated.

Yes, the increased risk tolerance that the pro-failure mindset creates is both refreshing and commendable. But repeated failures need to be followed up with the proper reflection and corrective action. Otherwise those failures generate intolerable risk and waste inside the organization.

Failure is a part of repeatedly taking risks. When we try and fail, then, the goal is to learn as much as possible so similar mistakes are never made again. Then take another risk, but plan to succeed this time!

The 3 Dimensions of Success

At BMNT, we noticed there wasn’t a simple framework for thinking about how to make new initiatives successful — so we created our own. The framework we developed is a modification of the Desirability/Feasibility/Viability diagram popularized by the design firm IDEO.

IDEO’s framework

All three elements are needed for a successful project. If any are missing, then new product initiatives will fail.

When building a successful product your team needs to ask three questions:

Is it Viable or is it just a Good Idea?Is it Feasible or is it Glorified R&D?Is it Desirable or is it a Complete Waste?1. Is it Viable or is it just a Good Idea?

When a project fails due to a lack of viability we call it a Good Idea. The project sounds good on paper — people want it and the technology is definitely there to deliver — but for some reason it can never get off the ground.

Whether it is because the return on investment isn’t high enough, resources are already stretched too thin, or it would require a policy change that the company just wouldn’t tolerate, you can recognize a Good Idea if you keep asking yourself “Why don’t we just…”

Naval Innovator and Father of the Nuclear Navy, Admiral Hyman Rickover — Source

The most effective way to turn a Good Idea into a successful project is to find a compelling way to tie the idea to a key organizational priority — all the better if that priority is directly tied to someone’s performance review.

2. Is it Feasible or is it Glorified R&D?

Feasibility is another key component that’s often overlooked. Many projects that experience cost overruns and delays start out as good projects.

Everything appears to be going well. People say that they want what you’re building, and you’ve managed to get resources committed to the program.

But then things go off the rails and you quickly find yourself throwing money and resources down a bottomless pit. This is a consistent pattern with our government customers.

The Joint Strike Fighter cost increases over time — Source

What happened? Instead of funding a great project, you accidently started funding a Glorified R&D project.

Glorified R&D occurs when you solicit bids for a project that sounds great, but ultimately lacks Feasibility.

The problem is that you have the requirements, the approvals, and the budget. That means the (doomed) project will definitely get started. Someone out there is going to agree to deliver whether they really can or not.

You want a jetpack for $50 next week? Sure, no problem!

Rectifying Glorified R&D projects is tricky. You can just pull the plug — and frequently that is the right call — but history does have plenty of examples of a breakthrough being just around the corner and persistence paying off (this list runs down a lot of famous examples in technology, but there are many in every field).

That said, it’s best to just avoid inefficient R&D activities. Do this by engaging technical experts and end users both inside and outside your industry. Make sure this happens early in the process. You need to truly understand what you’re asking a contractor to deliver.

3. Is it Desirable or is it a Complete Waste?

A Complete Waste occurs when an organization cuts a check for something that nobody wants or needs — in other words, it lacks Desirability. Whether it’s an internal improvement project or a new customer, these types of projects drain your organization of time, money, morale, and reputation.

Ignoring Desirability is why the human-centered innovation methodologies — think Design Thinking & Lean Startup — all put users first. If all you do is inject a little desirability into the equation, you’ve avoided completely wasting your time.

Serial Entrepreneur & Investor Steve Blank — Source

Fixing a Complete Waste isn’t easy, particularly in a requirements-driven process like that of a typical government organization. The best thing to do is make sure to validate your guesses about user needs. How? By getting out of the building and talking to the people who will actually use it!

Building for Success

The common theme with these types of failed projects is the presence of two out of the three elements of good design. It turns out that having 2 out of 3 is enough to tempt teams into thinking that success is right around the corner.

These are the types of projects that clog up organizations because they have “just enough” momentum to keep going, but not enough to actually deliver the results they promised. We like to call these Zombie Projects.

Beware of your organization’s Zombie Problems — SourceBeing able to recognize the potential for bad failure is the first step.

By understanding whether their Desirability, Feasibility, or Viability is deficient, teams can access the correct toolbox of resources available to shore up and address their shortcomings.

The next time your project runs into a wall, don’t grapple in the dark. Instead take a step back, honestly assess which element is causing the current failure, and then find the right path forward.

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