Lean Startup: Safe failure vs failure

A Lean Startup has three possible outcomes:

  1. We found a winning product (success)
  2. We learned our idea was a bad one, and did something else (safe failure)
  3. We messed up and failed to seize opportunities (big failure)

Thinking like a Lean Startup, we value fast failure, because it teaches us important lessons that in turn can be used to find a winning product. Big failure, however, is when we fail to implement the thinking in the first place. Big failure encompasses anything from never getting getting started in the first place to greenfield innovation initiatives that – usually seen in retrospect – never could have made it, because they were built on the wrong premises.

This post is about avoiding big failure.

I meet a lot of corporate people who want to learn Lean Startup these days. They mostly expect training in experimentation: Business modelling, customer dialog, minimal (viable) product design and other means for validated learning. Build, measure, learn.

The truth is that learning basic skills of Lean Startup isn’t really that hard. Effective use of cheap learning material, from books and tutorials (and even board games) to Meetups and conferences, will get you a long way. Getting mentored by someone who’s done it before may get you even further, but you’re still traveling along one axis of a multi-dimensional challenge. Experimentatiton skills are the hiking shoes you need to climb the mountain (and as far as I know, no hiking shoes have ever climbed a mountain).

And the horrible truth is:

Travel along the skills dimension, and your final destination will always be big failure.

Big failure kills big change

Big failure is particularly harmful in corporate innovation, because corporate innovation rarely is about the innovation itself. Most corporations see Lean Startup as a change process. Existing business faces threats, and we need to innovate again. A success case is helpful, but the value is not found in a single new revenue stream. The big treasure is to shift the mindset and culture of the entire company towards innovation. To free our minds from old ways of thinking.

Big failure will however tempt us back into the comfort zone, where too many great companies go to die. “We tried this Lean Startup thing, and see what happened! It’s time we stick to what we know”, and so on. Big failure kills change processes before they get started, and it usually happens because:

  • We won’t start unless our mandate is “pure” (quest for the ultimate greenfield, blue ocean or both)
  • We regard innovation as a tool for exploiting existing assets (reverse innovation)
  • We don’t want to start yet (we have all these other things that we need to do first)

To eliminate these drivers of the past, and start climbing that mountain, you need to change your thinking. Even in corporate innovation, the art of making sound choices boils down to that one question an independent entrepreneur asks herself all the time: Would I still be doing what I’m doing, if I had invested my house and life savings in this idea?

The answer might reveal that you wouldn’t spend all your time campaigning for that mandate, or trying to bring old assets to life, or continue doing what you’ve always been doing. Instead, alternative courses of action emerge. They belong to a new perspective: It’s your entreprenerial view of the world. It’s free and it’s open. It’s muscle power for your hiking shoes.

Experimentation is the easy part of Lean Startup. It will only work when matched with an entrepreneurial mindset. You’re a lean startup right now. What can you do in the next hours to learn about your idea? Forget the skills. Explore the world outside your company, and start building knowledge. You will hit a few safe failures before you find that winning product, but it doesn’t matter because Big Change is on.

Related posts from @hauge2:

Anders Haugeto (36) is software engineer, experiment designer and entrepreneur helping the customers of Iterate innovate faster. He shows intrapreneurs how lean thinking helps their mission in life – disrupt yourself from within.

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