Andrew McPherson, Trevor Leybourne and James McCallum share their thoughts

Andrew McPherson, Trevor Leybourne and James McCallum

This month we have asked three key contributors in our industry to share their thoughts on the role of perseverance in innovation. Andrew McPherson, CEO Experieco, Trevor Leybourne, Product Development Manager MYOB and James McCallum Founder of iClue share their insights with us.

What is the best output of innovation failure you have seen and where have you persevered with an idea where at first there have been doubts?

AM: In my career the best example of this was at a previous start-up I co-founded. We continued to innovate after initial failure around automotive diagnostics integration and instead developed a successful unit for monitoring refrigerated cargo and associated generators. This was a much more niche application but the market was wide open for a technology like ours. It was also a much higher value application of the technology.

TL: The best example of innovation perseverance I’ve seen at MYOB was an engine we needed to build for a new product. We had (and still have) a very strong but grand vision for this engine and knew it was going to be a challenge. The first version just didn’t make the grade, it was too complex and not scalable or adaptable as we had envisioned it. However, we applied the learnings from that version and the next iteration of the engine not only addressed the needs of the primary development team but also became the cornerstone of a number of products in the business and a lighthouse as to how components can be built and shared across the organisation.

JM: When innovation fails the only output I have ever seen is genuine market insight. Innovation failures are perfectly healthy during the inception of a new idea and the true challenge lies in correctly validating the idea and reducing the feedback iteration cycle time. When persevering with an idea that holds some doubt, I first ensure that there is verified data behind the problem and that data serves as my anchor. Then I pivot and restart the process using the newly generated data.

This universal movement of ‘failing fast’ would suggest that perseverance is a key attribute sought in employees. How do you strengthen your own and your staff’s drive to succeed despite failures?

AM: I believe the drive to succeed despite failures is hard to teach. It is more about being ambitious, to want to strive for betterment, only seeing setbacks as a temporary obstacle that you need to overcome and being motivated to achieve your overall goal. Therefore, it’s more about being committed to an overall long-term goal or vision – hence perseverance. With staff, I think it is more about trying to find alignment between your overall long-term goal with your employee’s goals. You need to show them how achieving your goal can help them achieve their goal – and make it real.

TL: I think the message is that it is OK to fail as long as we have a plan in the first place to succeed. The key then is to follow and monitor that plan and when you are heading off course have the ability to be able to decide how you react and in Lean terms to either Persevere, Perish or Pivot. We talk about the Plan, Do, Measure cycle and so you are constantly adjusting and adapting.

JM: Sharing company values, redefining what failure actually is and what is an acceptable level of failure is the key.

How do you accept that failure is a consequence of innovation without fostering complacency?

AM: You need to create a safe environment for failure. However, failure needs to be part of a structured process, i.e. the lean start-up process, where you are conducting a number of controlled experiments to see if you can succeed or fail each step of the way. This way a ‘failure’ is just another data point from which you can learn and feed into your next experiment. If you approach it this way, then you tend to take smaller steps and smaller risks along the way, therefore mitigating the risks of a large/expensive failure.

TL: I believe this still comes down to having a vision of where you need to get to. Even when you are innovating, there is a vision of what you are trying to achieve in that innovation. If you don’t have a vision then there will be complacency. Complacency comes about if there are no expected outcomes, so there is no accountability or ownership. And failure is a big word in this context; it’s not about completely failing, it’s about adapting your strategy or plan as you learn more about the target.

JM: I don’t personally see a connection between failing and complacency. In fact I probably see a connection between perceived success and complacency like a big fish in a small pond. In saying that I do think that keeping a healthy rational view of failure is key and making sure to celebrate your wins helps keep everything in check.

At which point in the product development and innovation process is perseverance most important and vulnerable to ‘failing too fast’?

AM: Initial setbacks and failures are the most vulnerable time. Motivation can drop. This is often around the third or fourth product interaction and/or market trials, once the initial excitement or gloss are gone and you are getting into the endless detail and hard work.

TL: There is a gut feel that comes into play. If you truly believe in what you are doing, and the data doesn’t say you are too far out of left field, then that’s when you need to make the call to keep going, or to pivot. The questions I would be asking here are what have we learned so far? What had we hoped to learn? Do we have enough data points?

JM: The problem with the textbook “fail fast” mentality is that it assumes perfect execution of your failure experiment and does not account for lack of experience. I feel that often when negative results come in too many are too quick to move on - missing something that could have been great if only they had asked the right questions or dug a little deeper. The catch here is that they needed the experience to ask the right questions which they would realistically only get from persevering a few times. I believe often people “fail too fast”.

What role does perseverance play in your day-to-day job and how do you motivate yourself to keep innovating?

AM: Perseverance is central to the management of the company. You need to focus on your long-term goals.

TL: It plays a big role because we don’t just give up and go home – we are always facing challenges and things that come in from left-field that we hadn’t anticipated. It’s about reviewing our progress toward our goals and constantly making small changes to our processes or our products. What keeps us motivated is the successes that we achieve – the customers satisfaction with what we deliver and that sense of gratification when we deliver innovations that contribute to our customers success. There is nothing more satisfying than building something new and innovative or finding better ways for clients. It’s a buzz.

JM: I keep motivated because I do what I enjoy doing.

All opinions are the contributors own and may or may not represent the views of their organisation.