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February 2, 2016

How to Build a Fail-Fast Culture

Summary:

Building a fail-fast culture in a slow-moving company in an industry full of tradition is hard, but some principles can guide you through the transition.

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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 start-up founders are known for having built companies that failed 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 iterating based on customer feedback.

But what role can this approach play in a slow-moving, large company? After all, many of the small start-ups that encourage fast failure will grow quickly, and maintaining that kind of culture as it scales 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 and then present a summary of improvement initiatives. They share ways to extend their concept, and the teams 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? Well, 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 a year later? Real-time development happens throughout the work days and weeks– not during an annual performance review – and allows you to constantly and 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 rethinking annual performance reviews, consider what guidance and framework you use to define a productive employee. Can you reward the team that boldly pushed new ideas, even if the ideas didn’t come to 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 article “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 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 than 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 and can empower and engage the team. It can even lead to new value if the idea can spark other future, more achievable initiatives.

It’s difficult to create a work world balance where innovation and creativity can quickly become executable projects or products in the market while also 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 while 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 them in the past few years. If you consider how your company’s culture could better embrace risk and failed ideas, you’ll be better positioned to deal with more unpredictability and to grow in the future.

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About the Author

Mary Lyons currently leads PwC’s talent innovation practice. A practice focused on supporting global clients to reinvent their talent strategy and operations for a changing world. In a global marketplace undergoing significant transformation, people and capability are key to delivering the business strategy.

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