Success out of failure

Katherine William-Powlett, NCVO’s dedicated Innovation Officer has been busy over the last few months organising a series of excellent events. Each one has tackled a different facet of innovation and has featured expert speakers, inspired audiences and a wealth of useful resources for budding innovators.

The final session ‘Success out of Failure’ today at London’s National Theatre didn’t disappoint.

Four innovation experts bravely shared some of their failures and inspired us to think more about the value and inevitability of failure if we are serious about innovating to make a difference.

“To develop working ideas efficiently – I try to fail as quickly as I can.”Richard Feynman 1965 Nobel prize winner

David Sabel, Head of Digital Media at the National Theatre (NT) spoke of the need for a culture of risk taking required to launch National Theatre Live; a live filmed  performance screened in cinemas around the world. The ‘test’ as it was called, to manage expectations both of the press and the audience, was a success despite some cynicism about the value of this new theatre medium. The NT were clear on their objectives of the test, which was to increase reach and access and fronted up to  critics by inviting them to one of the cinema screenings. Experiencing NT Live changed their minds and a blogging sceptic transformed into an advocate.

Kevin Waudby Head of Radical Innovation at CRUK shared how a culture of accepting and sharing failure enabled CRUK to learn from a fundraising flop called Give Take Donate.

The Radical Innovation team have a 5 year objective to raise £10 million from new initiatives. Give Take Donate was a website that aimed to convert volunteering time into donations. It failed to bring in the expected income. However, instead of shoving this failure under the carpet, a report on the Give Take Donate project was presented to CRUK’s Chief Executive who congratulated the team on their hard work and ensured that the learning was shared. This learning has influenced development of other online products including My Project – so watch this space.

Nick Adridge CEO at Mission Fish, a company that enables you to give through EBay confessed that their original business model, structure and interface were all wrong. People were resistant to giving their details online and the way the site was set up was a barrier for people to easily participate. The Mission Fish product is now fully integrated with EBay’s core business and raises huge amounts for a range of charitable causes. As Nick says, in this case, to get things fixed you need to fail badly.

Heather Bewers Head of Innovation at KPMG shared her experience of some of the pitfalls of developing an idea suggestion system. At one stage Heather was presented with thousands of ideas that she had no capacity to deal with and presumably many sleepless nights and a lot of people expecting her to deliver their idea. Frustratingly two-thirds of the ideas were for things already implemented, which highlighted a communication need (I share this experience from ideas submitted to an inbox I once set up).

Heather challenged an assumption that many make around offering incentives, that money is not in fact a motivator. Check out this RSA clip from Daniel Pink that tells you why.

Now KPMG ask their clients for a challenge which staff input into. This gets insight from customers as well as keeping the idea generation around a clear business need.

My caveat is that there is a debate around what is most successful; user led or product led innovation. As Henry Ford said

‘If I had asked people what they wanted they would have asked for a better horse.’

But that’s the exciting thing about innovation, if you study great innovations over time, whilst there are some commonalities, there is no blueprint of right or wrong.  Intrinsic to innovation is a degree of serendipity, belief, sheer bloody mindedness and failure.

Innovation is the realm of the brave. You have to accept that failure is part of any innovation process. Here are my top 13 tips to help you take advantage of the fallout of failure.

1. Have clear objectives. Know what you want to achieve, e.g. extending your reach, raising money, developing internal communications…..

2. Be bold and open about your idea

3. Accept that there is a risk, the idea might not work.  Have a contingency plan to deal with failure, e.g. how you deal with the press, internal communication, dealing with your own personal disappointment

4. Prepare to admit failure and cut your losses if its fails.  Don’t let your ego get in the way of admitting it’s not working

5. Minimise risk by balancing robust research and market insight with gut feeling.

6. Be clear on who owns the idea and who is responsible for delivering it.

7. Ensure leadership are visibly on board

8. Your innovation must contribute to your strategy – if it doesn’t stop doing it

9. Manage expectations

10. Don’t incentivise idea generation with money

11. Provide regular stimulus to help people have ideas

12. Be open and learn from mistakes

13. You cannot learn by reading – take action, do whatever you can to make your idea real for people

Interested in failure? Check out these links.

New Coke – It seemed like a good idea at the time

Reckless opportunism versus the dead hand of risk-aversion


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