Fail Fast … the Story of Innovation, Persistence

Good ideas are common. What’s uncommon are people who will work hard enough to bring them about.

- Ashleigh Brilliant

Have you heard the story of innovation and WD-40? Are you persistent in the use of innovation in your business?

Do you first experiment with prototype testing before full-scale rollout?

In his book, The Art of Innovation, Tom Kelly writes:

Quick prototyping is about acting before you have got the answers, about taking chances, stumbling a little, but then making it right.

Prototyping is problem-solving. It’s a culture and a language. You can prototype just about anything — a new product or service or a special promotion. What counts is moving the ball forward, achieving some part of your goal. Prototyping is the shorthand of innovation.

Many of us have several cans of WD-40 around our home. Most of us have never heard its story.

WD-40 is the trademark name of a penetrating oil and water-displacing spray. It was developed in 1953 by Norm Larsen, founder of the Rocket Chemical Company. WD-40, abbreviated from the phrase, Water Displacement, 40th formula, was originally designed to repel water and prevent corrosion, and later was found to have numerous household uses.

Larsen was attempting to create a formula to prevent corrosion in nuclear missiles, by displacing the standing water that causes it.

So, why is WD-40 named WD-40?

Because the first 39 water displacement formulas designed by Larsen and his company failed.

What can we learn from this story?

Innovation requires lots of patience and persistence. It requires you to experiment fearlessly.

To be successful in innovation, you need to:

Fail fast … learn fast … fix fast

Customers don’t care how many failures you had … but they won’t wait.

Here is another valuable lesson. But first, here are several examples of the lesson.

Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, but it wasn’t until 15 years later, in 1943, that the miracle drug came into widespread use. Alan Turing came up with the idea of a universal computer in 1936, but it wasn’t until 1946 that one was actually built and not until the 1990’s that computers began to impact productivity statistics.

We tend to think of innovation as arising from a single brilliant flash of insight, but the truth is that it is a drawn-out process involving the discovery of an insight, engineering a solution, and then the transformation of an industry or field. That’s almost never achieved by one person or even within one organization.

The reason that Fleming was unable to bring Penicillin to market was that, as a biologist, he lacked many of the requisite skills. It wasn’t until a decade later that two chemists, Howard Florey and Ernst Boris Chain, picked up the problem and were able to synthesize penicillin. Even then, it took people with additional expertise in fermentation and manufacturing to turn it into the miracle cure we know today.

This isn’t the exception, but the norm. Darwin’s theory of natural selection borrowed ideas from Thomas Malthus, an economist and Charles Lyell, a geologist. Watson and Crick’s discovery of DNA was not achieved by simply plowing away at the lab, but by incorporating discoveries in biology, chemistry and x-ray diffraction to inform their model building.

Great innovation almost never occurs within one field of expertise but is almost invariably the product of synthesis across domains.

What is innovation?

Innovation is an idea or design put to good use. Does it have to be new? Heavens no. In fact, the best innovations are old ideas from a different domain transferred to a new domain.

From Dan Pink’s Blog, we found the following facts on innovation that we would like to share with you:

A study of the top 50 game-changing innovations over a 100 year period showed that nearly 80% of those innovations were sparked by someone whose primary expertise was outside the field in which the innovation breakthrough took place.

Wow! 80% created by someone outside the field where innovation occurred!

Why innovate?

This is a good question to ask Apple or 3M … or maybe IBM, Google, Amazon, IDEO, or hundreds of other businesses seeking innovation for continued competitive advantages. They certainly know why they innovate, don’t you think?

Secrets to innovation success

Recognize the need to improve

It doesn’t take rocket scientists to realize that the competitive marketplace is definitely not a static environment. To stay ahead of your competition you need to consistently find new products and services … from the innovative process.

Look at things in new ways

Disruptive innovation and change is a process chock full of surprise — failures, successes, unexpected technological advancements, competitive moves, customer feedback, political and regulatory shifts, and other unforeseen events. Most leaders assume surprises always should be avoided.

But those who realize that surprises are an inevitable part of a business (just like life) are best equipped to actually use surprise as a strategic tool — which makes them the most agile and fastest to respond to or capitalize on unforeseen events.

Connect the disconnected

While we like to think of innovators being lonely men on the mountain, only coming down, like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, to proclaim great revelations, the truth is that important breakthroughs usually come from synthesizing ideas from different domains.

One famous historical example is that of the discovery of genetics. In 1865, when Gregor Mendel published his groundbreaking study of the inheritance of characteristics in pea plants, it went nowhere. It took nearly a half-century before the concept was combined with Darwin’s natural selection to unleash a torrent of innovations in medicine and science.

Commit to innovation culture

How big of a deal is creating an innovative culture for your business? In this blog, we highlight important principles of business culture. As you will see, the best businesses certainly consider this culture a very big deal. They could be a great way for your business to improve innovation effectiveness.

You need to have the ability to challenge business traditions as often as possible. It’s also important to recognize that culture comes from the people — it is the people. Think about the individuals within your organization — what are their personalities like? Who are they outside of work? What tickles their fancy? All of these things lend to the culture of your organization, and ultimately your products and services.

Remember, never be done with things … life is a perpetual prototype.

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