How to bring a fail-fast culture to a slow-move company

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December 1, 2015

by Mary Lyons

There’s a lot of talk these days about how failure is not just fine, but fantastic.

Tech companies famously tout “fail fast”-style mantras. One of Facebook’s guiding principles is ‘Done is better than perfect.’ Many a startup founder is known for having built failed companies before finding long-term success.

The philosophy of encouraging mistakes and quickly learning from them complements the design-thinking movement. In this way of thinking, you’re encouraged to launch quickly, shipping imperfect product, and then iterating based on customer feedback.

But what role can this approach play in the slow-moving, large company? After all, many of those small startups that encourage fast failure will grow quickly, and maintaining that kind of culture as you scale is tricky. How do you treat not-quite-perfect, disappointing, or outright failed ideas and projects as acceptable among hundreds or thousands of employees?

Here are a few guiding principles for instilling an innovative, fail-fast philosophy in a larger organization.

Set up mini innovation groups: I worked with an organization that set up small teams across the company with the mandate to drive innovations in the everyday routines of work. The teams discuss new processes, test their ideas, then present a summary of improvement initiatives. They share ways to extend their concept and look at other potential business implications. A review board makes the final approvals based on the portfolio and suggests ways to make wider impact. It’s an organized, civilized, and yet wholly innovative way of working in a bigger company. And if the teams’  ideas fail? At least they were given permission to try.

Focus on feedback year-round: If you were working on a new project and it failed to launch or didn’t perform well in a test, would you want to hear about what you could’ve done better from your manager—after a year? Real-time development happens throughout the work days and weeks, not during an annual performance review, and allows you to constantly, more quickly improve. But this is a change you should make as part of a bigger talent innovation strategy in performance management—it can’t be executed effectively alone.

Recruit, promote, and succession-plan differently: To encourage a fail-fast mentality, we must reimagine what we consider successful. Along with a rethinking of annual performance reviews, as noted above, consider what guidance and framework you use to define a productive employee. Can you reward the team that boldly pushed for new ideas, even if the ideas didn’t come to full fruition? Is a top performer one who differentiated your brand in the marketplace with a new angle, even if it didn’t have the same broad reach as last year’s campaign? Adhere to what principles your organization’s strategy prioritizes, but ensure you’re not inadvertently punishing people who take smart risks.

Follow basic culture evolution lessons: Strategy+business magazine’s “Culture and the Chief Executive” shared how culture can evolve by following four tenets, and they’ll of course apply here, too.  The basic steps to remember:

  • Demonstrate positive urgency by focusing on your company’s aspirations—its unfulfilled potential—rather than on any impending crisis.
  • Pick a critical few behaviors that exemplify the best of your company and culture, and that you want everyone to adopt. Set an example by visibly adopting these behaviors yourself.
  • Balance your appeals to the company to include both rational and emotional cues.
  • Make the change sustainable by maintaining vigilance on the few critical elements that you have established as important.

Know your limitations: Certain companies, organizations within an enterprise, and missions can more easily afford to push the envelope and experiment compared to others. While inspiration can come from the tech world, there are limits to how far your organization can go. The key is to understand, challenge, and ultimately work within these limits to foster a culture of innovation. Even in risk-averse circumstances, some businesses exercise the fail-fast philosophy on non-mission-critical projects that won’t harm the business, brand, or customers if they don’t pan out. This approach can reinforce your culture, empower and engage the team,. It can even lead to new value if the idea can spark other future, more achievable initiatives.

It’s a difficult balance to create a work world where innovation and creativity can quickly become executable projects or products in the market, while staying within the complex boundaries of a large organization—especially one that’s regulated.

But a learning culture that embraces fresh ideas, even those that could fail, is increasingly essential. More than ever, our clients ask PwC to help them stay competitive and innovative as smaller organizations threaten their growth. And more than ever, big businesses risk losing talent to these companies, too.

To keep up, you’ve got to re-up. There’s little progress to be made by doing things the way you’ve done in the past few years. Consider how your company’s culture could better embrace risk and failed ideas, and you’ll be better positioned to deal with more unpredictability–and grow–in the future.

Photo by StickerGiant on Flickr via Creative Commons license

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