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Entrepreneurs: are you ready to fail?

It sounds like an oxymoron, but the idea of intelligent failure has merit.

It sounds like an oxymoron, but the idea of intelligent failure has merit.

frank owen tait communications idealog - ready to fail

Accepting and embracing the role of intelligent failure is one area where New Zealand companies could do well to take lessons from our counterparts in the United States. I was struck by the concept during a recent tour of Silicon Valley, where I visited design-inspired companies such as Google, Facebook, Ericsson, Method and Intuitive Surgical. Thirty New Zealand business and design leaders took part in the tour, organised by Better By Design, the specialist group within NZTE.

While everybody who took part gained something different from the experience, which also included practical sessions with global design firm IDEO and the Stanford design school, the fundamental principle was the same – to learn new and effective ways to inspire a culture of innovation in New Zealand.

A number of Silicon Valley companies are actively exploring what can be achieved through idea generation around latent customer needs. They’re then bringing those ideas to life through rapid prototyping in a visceral thought provoking way, which evokes vision, a response and encourages feedback, so they can decide whether to develop the concept further – or importantly, provides enough information to kill the idea.

That can apply to anything, from a basic design for a product that meets the needs of a user, or even a service or business model.

I was particularly interested in the speed at which these companies work – and that they have the smarts to swiftly gain insight into what will make a difference and the confidence to fail intelligently. They’re working on very different products, from software applications to physical devices such as surgical robotics, which can carry out surgery controlled by a surgeon operating it from a workstation.

But no matter how different the product, all have tried to truly understand what the customer need is, developed a prototype economically, gained feedback and then made the decision to either take it to the next level or shelve it and move on. Understanding that some of the best successes come from the approach of accepting intelligent failure is something we still have to learn in New Zealand. Embracing failure does not have to have a stigma attached to it.

In fact, it can be a positive learning experience. If we’re going to become truly and economically innovative, we need to learn to embrace making mistakes, letting go and moving on to the next idea. We all can learn and grow through making mistakes.

Another striking element was the degree of openness – no-one was trying to hide their patents under a bushel. The emphasis was on getting good people together, drawn from all over the world, and developing good ways of working on those great ideas.

There was a tangible culture and focus on developing, encouraging and enabling people to become innovative and the best they can be through self-actualisation – moving from a job, to a career, to a true calling. Physical environments are very important, with lots of reconfigurable, collaborative and engaging spaces.

These companies and organisations are also very interactive and connected to the public and to the market. This was something that came through very strongly during our visit to the California Academy of Sciences. It was clear that empathy and humility is hugely important as part of the process. It’s vital to listen to your customers and to your markets.

If you start advocating about what you have, rather than listening to what the need is, then that becomes a problem. New Zealand can also learn lessons in this area. Rather than trying to make the stuff you have fit the market, use those competencies you have built to generate a totally different product.

One of the challenges we face in New Zealand is that we are conditioned by locality and geography. We need to break out of our goldfish bowl and expose more of our people to international experience, stimulate new ways of thinking and working and enable people to become more comfortable with business in general and what it contributes to society.

We need, as a country, to stop viewing business with suspicion and take an economic perspective. Promoting exciting innovative business is not about lining the pockets of corporate fat cats. A flourishing, innovative business community is vital for growing our standards of living, from education to healthcare. A rising tide raises all ships!

All importantly, we need to ensure those people that have gained valuable international experience come back to share those experiences with other New Zealanders.

In Silicon Valley and all around the world, many Kiwis are working in senior executive teams in major global companies. It would be interesting to know the economic value generated by all Kiwis on a per capita basis.

Overseas businesses like to employ Kiwis. By and large, those that have grown up here have good levels of education, and a high degree of self-reliance and confidence in their own ability. Employers recognise that we have resilience and self-direction, self-motivation and self-leadership, and they get good outcomes. We make stuff happen, are good at being real, taking risks and moving forward. These other environments respect that ballsy ‘get on with the bloody thing’ approach.

The trouble is that the Kiwis who are exposed to the international environments and experiences that enable them to make the most of these characteristics rarely come back. We need to find ways to ensure that they do come back, share their experience and knowledge, and then apply their Kiwi characteristics, which are so in demand internationally, to our own industry and business environments.

We might not be able to compete with the giants in terms of technology, but we can compete in the ways we apply technology and the approaches we use. We need to get involved with industry and customer bases in a humble way with deep empathy for customers and the experiences they are seeing. That is the starting point. We have to leave preconceptions behind and be genuine.

We can use these lessons to build creative cultures and internal systems that will encourage and sustain innovation. We need to embrace intelligent failure and collaborate in the right ways so we can take ideas, blow air into those balloons and test them in economical ways. It’s time for us to take charge of our own destiny, rather than expecting the system to take charge of it for us.

Frank Owen is managing director of Tait Communications