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Maria Soroka
13 Jan 2020

Fail fast or learn early?

Olga Keating
Rapid innovation cycles: how market research can support agile innovation development
Are you afraid of failing fast?
There should be no fear of testing innovation early. If you are in innovation then you know that you are knee deep in the product development process before you know it. So the earlier the better.

Agile evolved outside of the software world and became a known concept. Everyone started to talk about failing fast but the language is counter intuitive, since what we actually try to achieve is to cut our losses by testing early and learning early. The language itself is actually what scares us the most. If we take on the learn early approach it is easier for people involved in product development stages to accept consumer validation and feedback.

There is also a factor of having a certain predisposition to particular feedback. You may expect the idea to fail or you may curiously look forward to finding out what feedback you'll get and what you'll do with it. This way the feedback cannot be negative in principle. As they say, there is no bad feedback, just feedback. You can also think positive and understand that your idea (like most ideas) will have at least something that resonates with people and you'll get to hear how good it is too.
Ok then, don’t! Instead learn early!
There is an opinion that consumers will kill off great ideas if tested too early. So low scores would be driven by poor visualisation skills of respondents, or basic presentation at this stage of development rather than by the potential of the idea or lack thereof. But if we have a fail fast mindset then many of our ideas will be put aside — that's one of the fears. This makes people defensive and over protective of their ideas.

Agile ways on the other hand are about rapid learning cycles. It is a fundamentally different way of looking at feedback. Rather than being about failure it is about learning early. Here is a brilliant article by Johanna Rothman which inspired this post.

Instead of looking at ideas as black and white remember that many ideas whether they worked or not usually have some value in them. You really can learn from failed ideas. For example, we look at a poorly performing idea and see where it's potential is. Why exactly didn't it work? Why didn't it resonate? What can we learn or improve? Can we change any of the elements of this idea to move ahead with?

The earlier we test innovation the faster we obtain feedback.
Learning early in practice. A real case study.
A great showcase of this notion is the results of our recent collaboration with a large consumer goods company. They included Fastuna in their 3 day idea generation process. Indeed it was a very brave move! Brave — because that meant that some of the ideas that teams had worked very hard on for 2 days straight would be torn into many little pieces or dismissed all together.

To come up with the ideas they held an extensive brainstorm, followed a particular process and then tested those ideas overnight. They didn’t come at it with the 'what if my idea will fail' mindset. Instead the teams and the company as a whole had a curious mindset. They wanted to know what insights will come out of it and what they would learn. They weren’t just interested in the ideas that scored good, but also the poorly scoring ones.

For example, for one idea the target audience had to be adjusted; for another—it was a finding that the idea makes a good addition to a bigger proposition but does not work as a standalone; or one idea was completely irrelevant to the country it was tested in. In addition to standard KPIs such as relevance, believability, trial interest, appeal, clarity, uniqueness, etc. they also received valuable feedback from people (in their own words) about what exactly resonated with them and what put them off. This brings the views to life and stimulates the creative nerve of those 'idea parents'.

This feedback was great for the teams as it was easily actionable. Moreover, every idea was exploited. Every idea had some value that was carried across to others. In such a way, no effort was lost and everyone’s contribution was genuinely recognised and appreciated. If everyone in the organisation was aligned on the term of learning early instead of failing fast it would be easier for individuals to focus on adjusting to consumer opinion as early as possible. It would minimise expenditure and risk and help avoid so many epic fails. Think of early testing as your friend, not a threat.
Check out a report from an early idea test
Here is an example of a toothbrush idea test at a very early stage. You will be amazed at how differently very similar ideas can be perceived. Very draft images were tested. Upon receiving the scores it was immediately clear what can be improved and how and how losses can be minimised.

'Because I definitely don't want a used toothbrush in my hand all the time' — Male, 46
'That is stupid' - Female, 22
'Nonsense, the manual toothbrushes cost little if you have to replace them more often' - Female, 26
'Why???' - Male, 62

Like the quotes? See the report for yourself!
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