In the corporate world, a lot of people feel that they should be putting their best foot forward. No one wants to admit failure. Such a culture is a problem for innovation. Leaders need to redefine what it means to put your best foot forward.
In the best-selling book Originals, author Adam Grant illustrates that the best way to find breakthrough ideas is to come up with a large number of ideas. Successful innovators have to kiss a large number of frogs before finding something that works. The challenge is that this process involves throwing away most of the ideas that we initially start working on.
This is a difficult thing to accept in most organizations. Most leaders got to their positions through their successes, not their failures. The incentive structures in most companies are set up to reward and celebrate success. Sales teams get their bonuses based on the sales they make and product managers get bonuses for meeting their revenue and profit targets.
At a startup weekend a few years ago, the organization I was working with tried to encourage the teams to be honest about the lessons they were learning about the business potential of their ideas. Despite this encouragement, all 12 teams that pitched to us, presented their ideas as having great potential for success. All 12 teams had revenue projections that increased substantially over five years.
Such a level of success across all these teams is statistically improbable!
Best Foot Forward
In established companies, there is consistent pressure to make a good impression. Noone wants to admit failure. But this can lead to zombie projects that keep going even when they are not having business impact or success.
But what if we redefined what making a good impression means?
Innovation is not about the successful execution of a specific project. Innovation is about searching to find value propositions that resonate with customers and business models that are profitable. So every innovation project should be evaluated using one overarching question:
How close are we to finding a business model that works?
Another way to think about this is that we should not tie ourselves personally to any single idea, even if we came up with it. If we view our work as answering the question of how good an idea really is, then there is no wrong answer.
In this situation, the wrong thing to do becomes providing leadership with an inaccurate assessment. You are not putting your best foot forward when you say an idea is good, without evidence from the market that it is. In fact, you are doing the company a disservice when you do that. In contrast, using evidence to stop an innovation project can save the company a lot of money.
Innovation teams should provide regular updates covering the following five areas for any project they are working on:
- What their idea is and what it might look like if the business model works.
- What work they have done so far on the project, such as customer interviews, building prototypes or researching competitors.
- What they have learned so far based on the evidence they have gathered and what it means for their idea going forward.
- What they still don’t know in terms of risky assumptions that might cause their idea to fail.
- What they plan to do next to test their idea and find the right business model.
If leaders want to evaluate a team, it’s really about whether they did great work to test their idea and gather reliable evidence. But leaders cannot evaluate a team based on the results that the evidence shows. This is beyond the team’s control. The results of the evidence are what they are.
The evidence can show that the team is on track to find a business model that works and they should continue. The evidence can also show that the team needs to change something in their business model (i.e. pivot). Finally, the evidence can show that there is no traction with the idea and the team should stop.
Each one of these three decisions represents putting our best foot forward. To continue when the evidence suggests we should stop is foolhardy. Stopping a project with no evidence of traction is a wonderful thing to do and we should celebrate this decision. A team that suggests stopping their project to leaders is acting in the best interest of the company. Such a failure is innovation success.
To find the best business ideas, we need to make small investments in a number of innovation projects, and only increase investment in those ideas that are showing traction. Putting our best foot forward in this context is making decisions based on evidence and in the best interest of the company.