Your Innovation Project Failed. Now What?

Your Innovation Project

In our last blog, we chatted with Scott Resnick, co-founder and COO of Hardin Design & Development, a firm that works with large companies to build new business practices. He broke down several questions that your company should ask itself before embarking on a specific innovation project that incorporates startup elements.

Let’s say you did that…and the project didn’t go so well. How do you and your team learn from your experience, move on, and have the courage to try again—even if you spent a fair amount of money and time on the endeavor? Well, Scott has a great list of questions to ask for these situations, too.

All of these questions have a common theme: the team working on this project must have a culture of trust in order to have these conversations and make them work. These questions can be tough to ask, but you won’t succeed in learning what to do better if there’s isn’t a level of complete honesty and transparency.

What about our process caused the project to fail?

There are so many variables that can lead to a project going off the rails. With your team, do a healthy brainstorm for all of them, especially when it comes to process: was there not enough checking in? Too much checking in? Was it hard to get answers from management? Not enough time to get the work done? Were the steps not clearly defined—or agreed upon?

Sometimes, it’s a lack of process entirely that causes projects to fail. Innovation is often perceived as a disorganized mess of ideas—“let’s get in a room and innovate!” when in reality, a solid innovation strategy and process is essential. From the initial ideation, to curating those ideas, to prioritizing ideas and understanding what can and can’t be done with current resources—it’s all part of the innovation process.

How did you measure the project’s success? Where those metrics the right ones? Was the project successful in other ways you didn’t plan on?

This is a way to take stock of how success was measured, and find other ways of measurement that you hadn’t considered. For instance, did you fail to meet a revenue target, but identified important efficiencies that could help other parts of the business? If you were hoping that company morale and productivity increased, was that successful, and can you point to specific examples? Even if your project didn’t hit the targets you set, there’s usually a success metric that can be applied to a future project.

When should this experiment have been stopped?

An uncomfortable question, as no one likes to hear that a project should have been stopped weeks, months, or even years before it eventually winds down. Again, this is where it’s so important to create a culture of transparency—your employees in the trenches will most likely know much better than you the exact moment things started to feel off and they need to feel that they can speak honestly about what they saw and experienced.

How can we test assumptions better in the future?

You’re never going to have a project—especially one where innovation is at the forefront—that’s 100% certain. However, you still need things that are somewhat absolute in order to make progress, and that’s where testing assumptions come in.

Startup culture thrives largely on iteration over perfection. You build, you measure, you learn, you fail, you build, and the cycle keeps on repeating. But here’s the thing: failure alone won’t tell you everything you need to know. Taking a look at where you failed to make assumptions or test the ones you made can help determine what caused the project to collapse in the long run. If you’re curious about a methodology to test your assumptions, this piece from MIT’s Sloan School of Management is a great one to bookmark.

Was there enough buy-in for the project?

Sometimes, companies spend too much time thinking about leadership buy-in. Of course, that’s important, as leadership is often the one giving you permission to move forward with exploring a specific project. However, if you don’t have buy-in from the people who are leading the teams doing the work, or the people on those teams, it’s going to be hard to move an idea forward, no matter how great it is or how necessary a product or service has proven to be.

There’s also stakeholder buy-in to consider. If the you have a dependency on the marketing department and don’t have that team on board because they don’t understand the project goals, the timeline, or what’s expected of them, you’ll reach an impasse pretty quickly.

Was this a product or service that people would have actually wanted?

This is often the hardest question. Sometimes, companies are so close to their idea that they don’t see—or don’t believe—that their clients or customers aren’t actually interested.

Be honest with yourself. Did you do enough research in your core market? Did you do all you could to really get to know your potential customers and hear their stories before embarking on this project? Did you ask the right questions to test your assumptions?

What were the ideal outcomes of the project?

This question often proves to be most important. If you ask five team members what the ideal outcomes were, and you get five different answers, you’ll quickly find out one of the reasons the project failed—your team wasn’t aligned on what the goals were.

It’s no secret—plenty of innovations, start-up and corporate alike, fail. These questions, although they might be difficult, can help you learn from your mistakes and channel that information into doing things differently the next time around. And there will be a next time— provided that you’ve put the pieces in place for a transparent culture where folks at all levels feel comfortable voicing ideas and concerns.

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