fail now! fail fast!

I grabbed a copy of an odd little book yesterday – it’s called Books vs Cigarettes by George Orwell. It’s a collection of six essays. They’re all pretty good (Orwell is always pretty readable), but I don’t see a lot of logic in assembling these particular essays into one book (the title essay is excellent though). In any case, in the essay on book reviewing I ran across this quote:

Until one has some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover how bad the majority of them are. In much more than nine cases out of ten the only objectively truthful criticism would be ‘This book is worthless’, while the truth about the reviewer’s own reaction would probably be ‘This book does not interest me in any way, and I would not write about it unless I were paid to’.

This reminded me of my experience at the radio station. I never fully appreciated just how much bad music was being made until I was Assistant Music Director and had to start sorting through all of it. It actually looks like Orwell formulated Sturgeon’s Law (90% of everything is crap) about 10 years before Sturgeon did. This is how Sturgeon phrased it:

“I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud”.

I think this is a really important idea. One of the points I keep trying to get across in my teaching is that ideas are cheap. It’s executing ideas that has value. One of the reasons for this is that 90% of ideas end up being lousy. There are two problems with this. The first is that we usually don’t know which ideas are the good ones. We can usually filter out the really horrible ideas that we come up, but there will always be uncertainty about which are the best ones. Idris Mootee has a nice post about one way to combat this – experiment a lot, fail fast, and fail cheaply. This has been a persistent theme for Tom Peters as well.

But this leads directly to the second problem – if 90% of new ideas are crap, we’re going to fail a fair bit in trying to execute them, and failing isn’t always welcome in businesses. Wendy Waters, writing at Richard Florida’s Creative Class site, gets at this issue nicely. Here’s one of they key quotes:

“If you’re going to have an innovative culture, you must understand that that comes with the acceptance of failure. Innovation comes with a lot of mistakes.” [says Tony Champman, CEO of communications firm, Capital C]

People generally hate to hear this. But innovation is evolutionary – you need variety, selection and replication. Creativity leads to variety, which is where Sturgeon’s law comes in. Then you have to be able to select. This is nearly impossible to do a priori, which means you have to experiment. The last part is that the idea has to spread, which is a separate issue again. But the bottom line is that to innovate, you must fail. If every idea that you try works, you’re not trying out enough ideas.

Even though I talk about this all the time, it’s still a hard lesson to learn. And filtering my own ideas is one of the key areas that I have to get better at. That’s one of the benefits of blogging – it gives you a chance to try out a wider range of ideas than you can in academic papers. Some of them work, some don’t. Part of the problem though is that Sturgeon’s Law almost certainly applies to blogs too. And since the Kristin Hersh post was pretty good, what do the odds tell us about this one?

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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7 thoughts on “fail now! fail fast!

  1. “experiment a lot, fail fast, and fail cheaply.”

    YES! This is the way to go. Start every business/test every idea in your garage or a more technologically advanced equivalent. It gives you more street cred, whatever that means, and it gives you an excuse for looking like you aren’t burning through VC money. See: Pirates of Silicon Valley.

    2 things:

    – I wonder if the SUV is running on biodiesel? Ah well, it’s hilarious anyway. I love failblog, and I’m overthinking it.

    – This is why bad singers get famous and good music goes undiscovered – certain bands, managers, etc. are more persistent than others. Madonna is a good example of this; while not a bad singer, she sought fame doggedly because she had things she wanted to say to the world.

  2. What is interesting about “innovation” in business is that it often isn’t really innovative. Instead, it is profitable. Many successful, so-called innovative companies have merely taken an older idea and given it a spin so that it doesn’t look familiar (Microsoft model). Also, a lot of so-called innovation is the finding of a niche in an established market.

    True innovation requires new ideas and, as your blog states, a willingness to fail. The problem is that we are mostly failure averse. From a social point of view, it is better not to try at all than to fail. You rarely, if ever, hear the story of a failed innovator (is that an oxymoron?). You only hear of successful innovators and then only their successes and not their failures. Even then, you only hear the spectacular success stories.

    I wonder if it’s an evolutionary thing. Failure can be deadly, so it’s not something that comes naturally. I’m reminded of the child nutritionist who told me that children are evolutionarily programmed to avoid new foods because they might be poisonous. Maybe we’re programmed to avoid poisonous new ideas.

  3. I had to look EcoSmart up. http://www.ecosmartus.com. They deal in tankless water heaters… and that’s it. No biodiesel. yeah, extra fail.

    Greg — I hear you, and Microsoft’s co-opting of “innovation” and how much they were fighting for innovation and creativity during their antitrust suit absolutely burned me. Here’s a good overview of their utter lack of innovation. I lived in the Seattle area at the time and my father built homes for Microsoft multimillionaires, so in classic defend-the-hand-that-feeds-it mentality, he stood up for their galling business practices at every turn (which, like most who stood up for them, he didn’t understand). He brought home a mug from a convention that read something like “lawsuits stifle innovation.” ugh. It’s important to recognize true innovation over that which is simply labeled as such for marketing purposes.

  4. That’s pretty funny about EcoSmart Amber. Annoying, but funny…

    We tend to define innovation fairly broadly, for a variety of reasons (some outlined here…). So recombination fits the definition. But it is definitely at the less interesting end of the spectrum.

    With regard to hiding failure, you’re probably correct Greg. Although, for a while, in Silicon Valley it was nearly impossible to get venture capital funding for a new web-based business if you hadn’t already started one – and it was just as good (some said it was better) to have started one that failed than it was to have done well. Not sure if that’s still the case there or not….