Monday, May 19, 2008

Measuring failure

Two topics of frequent discussion in philanthropy - metrics and innovation - just came together in an interview I heard while listening to the radio. Kai Ryssdal of Marketplace spoke with A.G. Lafley, CEO of Proctor & Gamble and author of a book on innovation, The Game-Changer. You can read the transcript of the interview here or listen to it here. I perked up at this part of the interview:
Ryssdal: "You write in your book that about half of your product innovations fail."

Lafley: "There is a museum in up-state New York that is full of failed consumer products, and we have our fair share there. So, I think we know we're in a game where you fail a lot. Innovation is that kind of a game, and what we are trying to do is improve our success rate. And what we are also trying to do is fail earlier, fail faster and reallocate the resources from the failures . . . the humans, the human capital and the financial capital, so we can put the money against innovations that have a chance [at] success."
So there it is, a metric for innovation. At least half your attempts should fail. As usual, I have some questions:

  • With all the philanthropic attention on innovation do you think this metric should translate over to philanthropic strategies?
  • Is this an acceptable rate of failure? Too high? Too low?
  • Do foundations and philanthropists and activists and social entrepreneurs know how "fail earlier, fail faster and reallocate the resources from the failures?"
By the way, when I search for "museum product failure new york" I get a link to the site of a product development consulting group. Seems that the company bought a 60,000 piece consumer product collection from Robert McMath, who had organized it as The New Products Showcase and Learning Center. Anyone know if this is the museum in question?


Pete said...

"Fail faster, to succeed sooner" is the axiom he's describing, very popular with engineers, industrial and process designers, creative folks. Most foundations and nonprofits don't seem to have that ethic, though. For many nonprofits, I've always thought the reason is that they couldn't (or didn't believe they could) absorb and recover from failure. Kind of like the way very small farmers in developing nations were inherently conservative in trying new seeds,new techniques - the gains from innovation may be high, even proven to be high in other cases, but the price of failure for them and their families was starvation. Not sure why the "fail faster" ethic isn't stronger at foundations, however, because for them that calculus - failure = extinction - doesn't apply. Let's hope Jim Canales' example of discussing failures will encourage others to follow, and eventually lead more funders to try, revise and adapt approaches more quickly and openly.

Another point to keep in mind, though, is that innovation may be "oversubscribed" in philanthropy, as Dr. Ross of the Endowment recently remarked. The question in many fields is less what to do, but how to do it to scale, and the old notion that government or "society" would expand and support proven innovations doesn't seem to hold , if it ever did. That's why Ross thought advocacy may be more important.

Anonymous said...

Another related, popular quote with creative folks is from Samuel Beckett: "Fail better." I think the message is the same, but its succinctness makes it more powerful (in my view) -- at least for people who really understand what it means. Makes a nice bumper sticker / office sign, anyway.