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Fail forwardI recently joined the board of directors of a mid-size company that had decided to drop a new business venture in which they had invested heavily. When I asked the board chair what went wrong, he said it was a well-executed project but a flawed idea.

We have been told that the best companies are learning organizations — that they experiment, fail fast and fail forward.

But how do you know which experiments to initiate in the first place? … how much to invest? … and how far to go before you pull the plug?

Large companies like Google have departments for new business development. Ideas are evaluated for strategic fit with the company’s mission, the future of technology, possible consumer interest and potential financial viability. And if a decision is made to proceed with a project, processes are in place to evaluate it at each stage. Smaller companies that do not have the same resources must still be able to answer these questions.

Most companies are operating in a world where their industry has been disrupted and they can no longer rely on their current business model to carry them into the future.

A focus on excellence means little when your business model is crumbling.

Being the best library doesn’t mean what it used to now that people have instant access to information through the Internet.

Being the best publishing company doesn’t mean what it used to now that people can easily and cheaply self-publish.

Being the best school doesn’t mean what it used to when people can watch a YouTube video to learn how to do almost anything.

Yes, it’s important to experiment and fail forward. But there’s a difference between failing forward and stumbling forward.

To choose the right experiments, you need to take a step back and understand what business you’re really in and how you can add value to the customer experience in today’s world.

For example, libraries were once primarily a source of information and provided access to books. They might install computers in a library as a creative application to their existing model. Or they can take time to look at the bigger picture of what people need and want in today’s world in relation to information and books.

Although people have instant access to information, they have difficulty evaluating its accuracy. What we need is information we can trust. Could libraries serve as trusted resources that curate information? What would that look like? Although people can easily download or order books from the Internet, they want to discuss what they are reading with others. Could libraries create opportunities for learning and discussion on topics of interest? In a world where people are increasingly connected virtually but physically isolated, could libraries offer an inviting community space where people come together?

Rather than trying out random ideas because they sound creative and potentially viable, the place to start is with a serious look at what business you’re really in.

Understanding your core business and competencies from the perspective of the value you offer and how that could be extended in the context of today’s world, will help you determine which products and services you should experiment with.

 

Photo credit: Noah Zemel | A Flawed Idea Well-Executed Does Not Fail Forward

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