When Jim Burke was ushered into the office of Robert Wood Johnson, the legendary chairman of Johnson & Johnson, he was sure he was about to be fired.
As J&J’s product director, Burke had introduced several over-the-counter medicines for children and they had all failed. But to his surprise, the chairman thanked him!
“We won’t grow unless you take risks,” said Johnson. “Don’t make that mistake again, but please be sure you make others.”
Burke went on to become Chairman & CEO of J&J, successfully guided the company through its Tylenol troubles of the 1980s and was named one of Fortune Magazine’s 10 Greatest CEOs of All Time.
According to Burke, “any successful company is riddled with failures. There’s just no other way to do it.” His opinion is shared by other great business innova- tors and entrepreneurs. Thomas Edison boasted, “I failed my way to success.”
Thomas Watson, Jr., who guided IBM into mainframe computers, once said “the way to succeed is to double your rate of failure.”
Obviously, failing itself is not the goal, but it is an inevitable aspect of experimentation and innovation. Because the vast majority of new ideas fail, you simply cannot innovate without failing. The real key is to fail fast and fail cheap, keeping your investment of time, money and other resources to the absolute mini- mum. The faster you identify and eliminate the flawed ideas, the sooner the best ideas will emerge. That is what Watson meant by “double your rate of failure.”
Our Innovation Engineering methodology emphasizes this “fail fast, fail cheap” approach by focusing on what we call “death threats”—those aspects of a new idea that are most likely to kill it. Any new idea will have mul- tiple death threats, so an integral part of conceiving a new idea is identifying all the major ones. Examples of a death threat to a new product might include a performance issue, the customer value proposition, or intellectual property rights. Once these threats are identified, the innovation team moves to construct a test or experiment that will quickly ad- dress each of the death threats that have been identified. In this example, you might build a working prototype to test the technical performance question(s). Or survey your most trusted customers to gauge the value proposition. Or do a patent search to answer the intellectual property concern. As a rule of thumb, Innovation Engineering looks to address at least one death threat per week in these Rapid Cycles of Learning.
Rapid Cycles of Learning will rarely provide 100 percent certainty regarding a death threat, nor are they meant to. The objective is to learn enough to confidently move forward while lower- ing your risk.
For example, you may find a patent that would apply to your idea. You now have several options including: adjust- ing your technical concept for the prod- uct to avoid the patent; investigating the potential to challenge the patent; explore licensing the patent; or kill- ing the idea completely and moving to your next innovation opportunity. Only when all the death threats have been re- solved is an opportunity ready to move into development. Compare this to the all-too-common case of a company with- out a systematic innovation process that invests large amounts in engineering and design only to discover this patent problem at the eleventh hour, if at all.
The most important decision of all is to start. As hockey great Wayne Gretzky once said, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.”
When was the last time your company took a shot at innovation?