Dynamic Focus Can Shorten the Distance to Failure

In a world where we don’t know what tomorrow will look like, safety comes from being able to continuously experiment. The winners get to failure faster, more frequently, using fewer resources, and learning from it quicker than others. So if you operate in a fast-changing changing world, then it is time to retrain your instincts. It’s too risky not to.

Suppose you have an idea for a movie. What would you do? Keep it secret and spend a year writing a script? Would you ask your friends if they think it is cool? Or would you take the advice of script-writing guru Blake Snyder and go to McDonald’s?

Snyder suggests creating a newspaper listing of movie descriptions and including your own movie idea within the mix. He then advises to go to a local McDonald’s and ask at least ten strangers to circle which of those movies they would want to see.  While you are there, seize the opportunity to ask what they think of your idea.

You know instinctively that this may hurt- your idea may fail.  Your instincts don’t like failure so you will probably nod and say the McDonald’s idea is a good one, but you won’t actually do it. Your instincts will suggest that you postpone getting real feedback by working on it longer or by asking someone who always likes your ideas, like your mom.

Your instincts have a point. Who likes failure? It makes you feel inadequate and unsafe. It is much better to stay away from danger as long as you can. Wait until you’re stronger. Delay the chance of failure. Unless… it is too risky not to fail!

When the world around you is changing rapidly, delaying failure is a very risky strategy. In a world where we don’t know what tomorrow will look like, safety will come from being able to continuously experiment. The winners will get to failure faster, more frequently, using fewer resources, and learning from it quicker than others. So if you operate in a fast-changing changing world, then it is time to retrain your instincts. It’s too risky not to do it.

So how do you experiment? How do you shorten the distance to failure and make it meaningful? In short, how do you set up what in the world of innovation is called a pilot?

What do you want to test? 

The short answer is assumptions. You want to test a number of assumptions that you are making about an idea or concept. Whether or not we are aware of it, our brains are always making assumptions, so we must first get a clear picture and then select the important ones to test. It helps to organize your thinking by using three distinct categories:

  • Desirability (people wanting your idea)
  • Viability (being worthwhile to pursue)
  • Feasibility (being possible to produce your idea)

Desirability assumptions

The McDonald’s example above is one of testing desirability. You might visit every hamburger joint in town and find that no one wants to go see your movie. Not only will you save yourself fruitless time and energy, but it will also give you a chance to learn how the story-idea may be successfully tweaked. Another way of talking about the desirability test is, “will the dog eat the dog food?” Your great idea for a original kind of dog food will first need to pass a crucial test: put your new strawberry and pumpkin flavored potato peels in front of a dog, sit back, and watch.

Viability assumptions

Saying an idea is viable can mean three things: One is that the economics work, so that the value the idea generates is greater than the investments needed to create it. The second meaning is that the risk is worth the reward. Maybe selling ice cream in the Sahara is desirable, and you could sell it for more than it costs to get it on location. However, with one power cut you could lose your entire inventory. How viable is it then? Think thoroughly about the risks and rewards, and what need to be tested. Thirdly, viability refers to whether something is sustainable in the long run. Will initial customers buy again? Will the social value sustain itself over time? These assumptions are often the hardest to test as they, by definition, involve a projection over a longer period, making it even more important to get them on the table at an earlier stage.

Feasibility assumptions

So is it possible to produce your idea and when you do, will it work? By now you assume yes, or you would not be taking it this far. But what exactly do you assume and can you get some data on it through testing? The assumption of Feasibility is listed after Desirability and Viability for a reason. If no one wants it or it is not worth making, you will save yourself the effort of finding out if it can be made. By coming from the other side, and knowing your idea’s worth and desirability, odds are you will find a way to get it done.

How will you test?

Unless you can put people in a brain scan while asking for their opinion, don’t bother.

There are two principles to adhere to when testing. The first is to test behavior, not opinion. People are notorious for saying one thing and doing another. In a recent study at UCLA, subjects were exposed to persuasive messages on the benefit of sunscreen while being scanned by an MRI scanner. They were then asked how much sunscreen they intended to use in the next weeks. The fascinating results showed no significant correlation between intention and behavior, yet they could predict behavior based on the brain scans. So unless you can put people in a brain scan while asking for their opinion, don’t bother. Put them in a situation where they show their behavior, or, better yet, where they have to pull out their wallet. Money talks, after all.

The second principle is that you can -behaviorally- test your assumption in much less time and cost. This is where the instinct of delaying failure needs to be overridden. You can be quicker, leaner, and lower in resolution. When a hotel chain created a promotion for free anniversary stays to couples that had previously married there, they were piloting for desirability.  They designed a brochure and tested reactions from couples and wedding planners. They called couples that had decided against their hotel as wedding location and gave them the offering. What would be quicker and leaner? You know you have something desirable if any change their mind. They knew within two days. The dog truly ate the dog food. Push yourself to come up with quick behavioral tests, where people make a real decision rather than give an opinion. The quicker and cheaper you are with a pilot, the more you can test ideas and aspects. It is the ABT of innovation: Always Be Testing.

How low (resolution) can you go?

Let’s look at a selection of methods for low resolution, each drawing on the works by Alberto Savoia and Eric Ries.

No Resolution. The Fake Door: Create a fake “entry” for a product that doesn’t exist yet. For instance, create a website inviting people on a fancy cruise to the North Pole just to see if someone will bite. Apologize when they do and say that it will be there in the near future, then quickly get on with your next steps towards building it.

Low Resolution. Parts are missing – the Flintstone: this refers to Fred Flintstone’s foot-propelling car. This is where the we have the essential criteria ready to test and the rest is made up by legwork. In 1990, Nick Swinmurn wanted to pilot whether people would buy shoes online. He took photos of shoes in the local shoe shop and posted them on a very basic website called Shoes-online. When an order was placed, he quickly went to buy them from the shop and hand-delivered them to each buyer. Just two or three sales were enough to confirm his assumption: people would indeed buy shoes online without having fitted them first. He closed the rough website and went on to launch Zappos, today worth 5 billion.

Minimum Viable Product: a lean startup concept popularized by Eric Ries. The basic idea is to maximize validated learning with the least amount of effort. Create a “functional” version of the product that is stripped down to its most basic functionality. As Ries says: ”The minimum viable product is that product which has just those features and no more that allows you to ship a product that early adopters see and, at least some of whom resonate with, pay you money for, and start to give you feedback on.”

The range extends from one end, where the MVP doesn’t need to be fully functional, to the Flintstone where it doesn’t need to be all there, to the fake door where it doesn’t need to be there at all.

How will you learn from the test?

At THNK, mastering ambiguity is seen as an important skill. We define it as being comfortable with conflicting insights, paradoxes, and needs, and being able to discover new opportunities and ways forward. Ideally, you bring this skill to the table when learning from a pilot, because you need to learn in seemingly opposite ways from your tests: both focused and unfocused. Using closely monitored metrics and keeping your eyes open will bring unexpected outcomes and learnings.

The head of innovation at a large Dutch hospital was asked how he learned from pilots, “To be honest, I put myself in the situation, open my senses and my mind to get a feel for wherever the learning might be. Of course we have metrics- we wouldn’t start without them. But in my experience the most valuable learning is often unexpected.”

So the questions to think through are:

  1. Focused: What are my make-or-break hypotheses? By which metrics can they be tested? What pilot or experiment will provide me with data on these metrics? What are my expectations? When will I give it a green light, or in other words, what are my green light criteria?
  2. Unfocused: How will I maximize the opportunity for unexpected learning? How can I ensure it happens? Where should I be? For how long? What should I observe and with whom should I speak?

 What are your next steps after the test?

It is sensible to spend some time thinking about your green light action and your red light action. Nick Swinmurn knew that as soon as his tested assumption had a green light, he would pitch the idea to venture capitalists. If your pilot proves your assumption to be valid, it is important to use that momentum to go into the green light action. Planning this in advance ensures that you won’t lose time and helps your mind focus on what you are piloting for. Sometimes it can be tempting to add extra tests, and while we are at it we might as well test this and that, too. Before you know it you’ll have lost sight of your purpose and added time and costs to what should be a very focused, quick, and cheap test. By knowing exactly what your next step is, depending if the color of the light is green or red, your pilot stays lean and mean- just like it should.

Red lights do not need to mean, “Stop.”

Red lights do not need to mean, “Stop.” Though shelving your idea is one of the possible red light actions, we prefer to shelve it rather than bin it, as you never know when or where that idea may just prove the missing link to something great. Having an attic or a cellar with lots of old ideas can at times be a source of inspiration when you are stuck. Though shelving is a legitimate red light action, more often the red light can be used to pinpoint where creativity is needed in your concept. Here you can formulate a new “How Might We?” question and apply elements of the Innovation Flow to this part of the idea that is clearly not yet working.

Ever heard of the online shopping app called Tote? Their pilot showed no one was ready for it, but the way people enjoyed putting their favorite items together in groups led to Pinterest. Or the podcast directory Odeo- it also may have eluded your attention, but their group-send SMS function took on a life of its own, known to the world today as Twitter.

History has shown that an entire new direction can come from a pilot. So know what to test and test it against behavior. Be quicker and more low-res than you think, measure and be open-minded, and finally be ready to shelve, add creativity, or even pivot your idea.

By Robert Wolfe, Mark Vernooij, Berend-Jan Hilberts

About the authors

Mark Vernooij has passion for entrepreneurship, education and innovation are what drive Mark. Prior to THNK, he has lead several start-ups in the fields of music and entertainment and online. Next to his entrepreneurial ventures, Mark travelled the globe as innovation and strategy consultant for Accenture and McKinsey.

With a background is in business strategy and innovation, Berend-Jan Hilberts has consulted internally and externally with companies on generating new ideas and creating new platforms for growth.

Robert Wolfe has been part of THNK faculty since the beginning of THNK as a leadership coach, storytelling trainer and innovation facilitator. Before he was a management trainer and personal coach in many countries, an improv actor, and he still is a writer of fiction novels for young adults. He specializes in experiential learning and voice dialogue.

This article was originally published at THNK.org