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When Success is Bad – The Math Behind Why Failure Is Essential

Posted by Plish on April 30, 2013

We all know Murphy’s Law: “Whatever can go wrong, will.”

But, what happens when the right things happen for what we think are the right reasons?

Or, restating in a slightly different way:

In any system there are ways of achieving the correct result through a combination of known and unknown means.

As any product developer will tell you, there are times when you test a product (or code) and it works.  You get excited. You decide to show your results to others. You do everything the exact same way you did last time, only this time, it doesn’t work.

Not. At. All.

How does this happen?

Let’s imagine a product as a mathematical expression: A+B+C=X (eq.1).  A, B, and C are things that we know, things that we do to bring about X which is the result we want to have happen. Let’s call this the “Success Equation”.

The equation for some undesired outcome could be depicted as: A+B+C+W=Z (eq.2). W is some known wrong step or condition that causes Z, which is an undesired result. We can call this the “Devil We Know” equation.

Now, when working with a product prototypes we actually only know what we know.  Sounds obvious right?  Another way to say this is:  We don’t know what we don’t know.

What this means is that the REAL equation for our product is very often: A+B+C+D+E+F=X.  (eq. 3) This is one of many versions of what I’ll call the “Devil We Don’t Know” equations.

A, B and C are known and are BOLD in the equation.  D, E and F, are grey because we don’t even know these variables exist.  Nevertheless, they are a part of the equation and if they all come into play, X occurs, so we’re happy.

And that’s a problem.


What happens if D, or E, or F, or some combination of these disappear?  We could get the formula A+B+C+E+F=Z, (eq.4) .  What gives?  We’re doing everything right, just like we were before, and getting the wrong result!!!

And it gets worse…

If n=”The number of variables we don’t know, but when all are present result in success”, then there are 2(n)-2 possible permutations of possible failure modes. In other words, if there are two unknown variables, then there are two possible failure mode combinations; 3 variables translates to 6; 4 to 14; and 5 unknown variables could lead to 30 possible failure modes!

Which brings us to the main point of this post.

Failure in the product development process is a necessity!


We ultimately want to get to the Success Equation (eq.1).  We want to be able to know that every time we do A and B and C, we get X.

The best way to get there is to convert every “Devil We Don’t Know” equation (eq.3) to a “Devil We Know” equation (eq. 2). And that only happens through testing, experimenting, failure, and learning from those failures.

So the lesson from this Law is this:  Next time you’re testing a product and it works as expected, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that your product is working perfectly.  Test. Fail. Test again! Avail yourself of digital tools and novel testing techniques (and people that like to break things) to create failures and learn from them. Find out what you don’t know.

Fail early, fail often, fail to learn, fail to succeed.

Oh, and this Law needs a name. Any suggestions?

Posted in Design, design thinking, innovation, Innovation Metrics, problem solving | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Is Your Organization Built for Innovation? Try This Audit Tool

Posted by Plish on April 11, 2011

I put together this Innovation Checkmap.  It highlights the working relationships that should be present in healthy, innovative organizations; a visual checklist to guide an audit of the innovation capabilities in your organization.    The map is simple to use:

  1. Pick a group (and/or individuals) as your Implementing People (IP).
  2. Walk your way around the map asking the questions in bold with reference to your IP.
  3. Repeat steps 1-2 for every entity in the organization.

If you can’t really answer a question, it shows that your organization is most likely weak in that area.  Make sure that you actually have data of some type to back up your answers.  If all you have are your opinions, (as in, “Those people don’t need to have access to the order system.  Why would they?”) that’s a problem.

Some definitions are in order.

Implementing People (IP) – This represents anyone (or group) that is doing a task, whether it’s people in  the C-Suite, Finance, R&D, Operations, etc..  It’s intentionally vague but it’s put at the center of the map as it is the starting point for an innovation audit. Pick a group you want to analyze and they are your IP.

Internal Customers (IC) – These are people the IP interact with on a regular basis.  This can include stakeholders. 

External Customers (EC) – These are your customers, users, patients, clients.  They are people or organizations that are not part of your organization.  They are people you serve or provide products to.

Each group has needs.  They’ve been broken down into, ‘What they need to feel,’ What they need to do,’ ‘What they need to have.”  These are distinguished from what they actually feel, do, and have.  The phrase, “How does your organization determine ‘what IP need to feel’?” means, “How does the organization determine the affective needs of the IP?”  For example, individuals in a certain group may need to feel wanted, feel pride, feel challenged, etc.  Also, disconnects between what people need to feel and what they are actually feeling, or what they need to have and what they actually have, are signs that something is amiss. 

I’ve also included a question regarding understanding what people say they do in addition to what they are actually doing.  If these aren’t the same, that’s an issue.

Another way to look at this map is as a source of metrics for gauging your innovation effectiveness.  Traditionally, most metrics are in the financial realm (ROI, Gross Profits, etc.) with a few from the Creativity side (Number of patents, etc.). Push your organization to have metrics of some type for each node/question in this map.   

This chart can also be used as a culture change guide.  Changing how nodes work and the relationships will impact your culture.

Innovation Audit Checkmap

Any questions or comments are welcome!

Posted in Creativity Leadership, culture of innovation, Customer Focus, design thinking, innovation, Innovation Metrics, Innovation Tools, Workplace Creativity | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Novel Tool for Measuring Emotional Response to Products – PrEmo

Posted by Plish on December 5, 2010

Companies put extreme effort into making sure their products are built according to specifications in repeatable, cost-effective processes.   For many, quality is seen almost exclusively through the lenses of assuring or controlling quality, Six Sigma,  Lean Manufacturing and the like.  In other words, improving quality means minimizing scrap or complaints due to product failures.

The problem is that none of these quality measures actually look at intangibles of quality, that je ne sais quoi tied into the emotional responses of the people purchasing or using the product.  Instead, these intangibles are indirectly (and many times incorrectly!) measured through metrics like increasing sales, i.e. if the products are selling, people must be happy with them and love them! 

In reality, however, good sales of a product may not have anything to do with people being excited about a product.  Instead, people may buy because of  how easily something can be purchased, or simply because of the lack of other offerings.   We’ve all had the experience of buying something that really wasn’t the preferred product simply because it was more readily available at a closer store.  In fact, since we are creatures of habit, we may even repurchase that very same item the next time our ‘habit cycle’ comes around! Does that mean I like that product? 

Of course not! It means I can live with it, and in the increasingly competitive world of  product offerings, successful companies shouldn’t, and in some cases can’t, rely on their products being ‘good enough’ to live with.  What are needed are products that elicit powerful emotions in people – those emotions that make people want to buy something even if it means driving 2 hours and waiting in line for 10 hours to buy it.

How do we know if a product elicits this response?  We measure the emotional response


Pieter Desmet, Ph.D.,  has done some excellent work in  finding ways of objectively and effectively measuring emotional responses.  To that end, I strongly suggest you read his paper entitled, ‘Measuring Emotions.’  It’s an easy but informative read about the development of his emotional response measurement tool called,  PrEmo.  

PrEmo is based on the premise that people are more able to effectively articulate their emotions through recognizing those same  emotions as conveyed in the facial/body expressions/vocal tones of others, than they are able to describe what it is they are feeling.   To facilitate this process, PrEmo consists of animated cartoon characters depicting 12 emotions (it used to be 14) on a screen.  Also on the screen is a picture of the product that’s being evaluated (though this product could be held in someone’s hands or experienced another way).  The person then clicks on each cartooned emotion, noting the extent he or she feels that particular emotion.  The data is compiled at the end and voila! Emotional responses have been measured and comparisons between populations and products can be made. The tool is easy to use and is even described as fun by some people.

 SusaGroup, in conjunction with the Delft University of Technology, built the system into a reasonably priced  commercial product.  If you contact them they will even oblige you with a demo so you can experience the tool for yourself.   

I think you’ll find that, like me,  PrEmo will have a place in your research toolbox, because product quality isn’t just about specifications and manufacturing processes – it’s also about the experiences people have when they interact with your product; it’s about designing products that elicit emotional bonds.

The importance of this emotional response can’t be overstated, because when the experience of a product is memorable in a positive way, you’ll find that people are often more than willing to overlook certain ‘quality’ issues.

Posted in Design, Emotions, innovation, Innovation Metrics, Market Assessment, Quality Systems, The Human Person | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

We Need Innovation in Government – Share Your Ideas!

Posted by Plish on February 12, 2009


Original B&W from brentoons.com

Original at brentoons.com


New CEO says we must innovate and create new opportunities.

There is agreement from Senior Management that this is true, but disagreements over methodology.

Meetings come and meetings go. Arguments ensue over where to put money and resources.

CEO tries to rally all those around her :

“Look, these are difficult times and we need to stop the bleeding.  I know every plan isn’t perfect but if we keep bickering and arguing we’ll pass the point of no return. Bottom line: I was picked to lead this company and I have to do what I believe is right. The buck stops here!”

“Anyone who argues by referring to authority is not using his mind but rather his memory.” Leonardo da Vinci

Plan is not communicated well enough to create buy-in through the ranks. In fact, there’s doubt plan will even work. Personal agenda items seem to creep into discussions. Innovation is something that is expected to occur once plan is in place but there’s doubt.

Plan gets pushed through.

Half-hearted support throughout the ranks results in serious stalls. Those at lower levels are talking at the lunch table:

“Man, with the new CEO you would think something would change around here.”

“What did you expect? The CEO can only do so much. She’s got all those other folks around her that still think the same old way.”

“And, act the same old way.”

This company is in trouble. So what should management do?

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” -Albert Einstein

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” -Albert Einstein

This failure of an innovation initiative is Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Creative Environments, culture of innovation, Disruptive Innovation, Great Creative Minds, innovation, Innovation Metrics, Politics, Workplace Creativity | Tagged: , , , , | 8 Comments »

Book Alert! Innovating at the Top-The CEO as a Champion for Innovation

Posted by Plish on January 24, 2009

This will be in my library soon

This will be in my library soon

Nine CEO’s were interviewed about their perspectives on Innovation and the results are a new book entitled: Innovating at the Top: How Global CEOs Drive Innovation for Growth and Profit (International Management Knowledge)

 While I have yet to read it, the summary article is quite intriguing.   While innovation happens deep within the ranks, these CEO’s are totally on board and drive their companies by providing a culture favorable to innovation.  A summary of the top ten drivers is as follows:

  1. Appoint the CEO as the innovation champion
  2. Celebrate an innovation culture
  3. Engage more innovation partners by sharing knowledge
  4. Organise diversity to promote positive friction and cross-fertilisation
  5. Use customer needs to drive simultaneous R&D and Business Model Innovation
  6. Set high-quality standards and demanding challenges
  7. Encourage youth and keep a challenger mentality
  8. Appoint appropriate decision-makers and encourage transparent information-sharing
  9. Use processes judiciously
  10. Incentivise people to innovate continuously

I love this quote from Co-CEO of Research In Motion, Jim Balsillie,  (who brought us the Blackberry smartphone):

 “I think the key thing I have learnt on innovation, is that innovation lies much more in process than just having the right answers. So there’s a real premium on visibility, in transparency, in collaboration, and I think that goes a long way.”

With regards to these companies having a culture that contains processes to bring ideas from the drawing board to the market place, Co-author Soumitra Dutta observes:

“These (companies don’t use) processes in the negative bureaucratic sense of the word ‘process’, but much more as supporting environments for enabling virtually everyone in the organisation to come up with ideas and run with those.”

I’ll be adding this book to my library soon.

Posted in Books, Creative Environments, Creativity Leadership, culture of innovation, innovation, Innovation Metrics, Interviews, Research, Workplace Creativity | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Innovation Never Sleeps, But It Does Nap…(Trends in Innovation)

Posted by Plish on December 29, 2008

One would think that innovation is first and foremost on everyone’s minds in the corporate world of the United States. Turns out that not only is it not front and center in the minds of US web surfers it actually is seasonal.

When searching on the word “innovation” in Google trends, I found that searches on the term “innovation” dip in the summer months and drastically dip in the month of December.


Perhaps even more telling is that when search volume is normalized the United States doesn’t show up in the top ten regions for searches.


Different search terms could skew the results so I checked “creativity”.


This shows the same Summer/December dips. The good news (or bad depending how you look at it), is that the US did make the top ten regions for search volume.


Also of note is that the general trends for search volume and news references are going down and up respectively.

What about “entrepreneur”? Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Case Studies, culture of innovation, innovation, Innovation Metrics, Research, Trends | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Finding and Grooming Innovators

Posted by Plish on November 25, 2008

Good article here from the Harvard Business Review.

In general, the article is right on.  I’ve personally (and unfortunately) seen much of what this article says must be done (or its lack thereof.)  I disagree, to some extent, with the section on giving innovators responsibility and the reward structure.  The argument is made that once innovators are found they should be given a chance – rewarded if they succeed and not given another chance if they fail. 

Since the article discusses “finding” innovators, I can see the rationale behind the need to give them a chance.  On the other hand, if a company has to “find” innovators, is it truly a company with an innovative culture, or a company that is efficient at keeping positive cash flow? I would argue there should be a difference. Perhaps not in the needed result but in orientation and execution.

In line with this is my dislike of the “one-strike-you’re-out” rule that most companies mentioned here seem to use.  By definition within the article, innovators are those who take risks.  A high risk project might fail- it’s what makes it high risk!  Having said that, risking once is relatively easy.  Risking twice or thrice after a former failure takes guts and courage.  The approach in this article cuts true innovators off at the knees. 

If somebody fails, (or as I prefer to say, “Increases his/her experiential database”, which coincidentally increases odds of future success!) analyze the situation, learn, cross-pollinate and keep moving forward!  What do I mean by cross-pollinate?

Any Innovator that is turned loose will innovate – new products, processes, systems, sub-systems will be developed in the course of any project.  Odds are HUGE that something developed during a “failure” can and will be used somewhere else in the company and perhaps with even greater payback than the original project had! That person should be rewarded not barred from future attempts.

What are your thoughts?


Sustaining innovation, many agree, is crucial for a company’s long-term success. But truly innovative people are rare: They have excellent analytic skills, never rest on their laurels, and can identify the solutions likeliest to win over top leadership. They are socially savvy and can bring a diverse group of constituents into alignment. They tend to be both charming and persuasive.

The right talent-management procedures can help in spotting potential innovators. Reuters, for example, interviews candidates one-on-one and gives them complex, real-world scenarios in which they must reach and defend decisions, accommodate new information, and convincingly sell their point of view. Starwood and McDonald’s require would-be innovators to lead cross-functional teams in developing promising ideas and then to present those ideas to senior management. One global industrial products company in the UK insists that they do a stint in the sales department.

Developing breakthrough innovators requires mentoring and peer networks. Mentors provide insight into the motivations, goals, mind-set, and budget constraints of managers in a variety of relevant functions. At Allstate, for example, the CEO coaches and supports the mentors themselves, sending a strong signal about the importance of the program. Peer networks provide a sense of solidarity and a uniquely fertile environment in which to exchange ideas, impart information, and instill hope.

Companies that excel in developing innovative leaders often remove them from revenue-generating line positions and plant them in the middle of the organization, where they form “innovation hubs,” with easy access to influentials, more autonomy, and broader job responsibilities.

Practices like these keep companies open to new ideas and prepare them to respond nimbly to innovation from elsewhere in their industries.

Posted in Case Studies, Creativity Leadership, culture of innovation, innovation, Innovation Metrics, problem solving, Research, Uncategorized, Workplace Creativity | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Latest on Innovation Metrics

Posted by Plish on November 14, 2008

InnovationLabs has published a white paper on innovation metrics.  While intriguing in its breadth, I’m not totally sold on the proposed metrics contained therein.  Too many of these metrics can be “padded” so that when it comes times to performance reviews people will be rushing to fill their quotas of “customers seen” or “ideas generated” just so they can claim they’re innovative.

Many of the other metrics are based upon  “what was done”, or “what was the return on x project”.  While necessary to somehow measure, these types of metrics lag and are like reacting to a fever of 105F after the person’s fever dropped to room temperature  becaue he/she cooked.


Posted in Creativity Leadership, innovation, Innovation Metrics, Nature of Creativity, patents, Workplace Creativity | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Creating a Culture of Innovation – GROW!

Posted by Plish on November 10, 2008

Interesting article here.  It seems everyone is looking for a magic bullet in innovation. 

It’s right there in front of you–in fact– it IS you! 

Humans are inherently creative and they are always looking for ways to make their jobs easier and more productive.  Do the following and GROW!™  You’ll be creating/supporting a culture of innovation without needing a program.

Get out of the way!! Don’t let your ego get in the way.  Let people be people and don’t stifle their need to improvise and come up with solutions!

Reward Risk taking and innovative thinking.  Nothing helps innovation like knowing that someone has “got your back” 

Obstacle removal.  You’re trying to do everything at breakneck speed-get the obstacles to success out of the way so you don’t trip! What are the obstacles?  Ask your people.

Work and win!  Nothing spurs innovation like confronting the problems of the day.  Work hard and innovation will percolate.

The same rules apply to individuals as well- apply the acronym to yourself and watch the ideas flow!

Posted in Creativity Leadership, innovation, Innovation Metrics, Nature of Creativity, Team-Building, Workplace Creativity, ZenStorming | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Innovation Metrics

Posted by Plish on November 3, 2008

There’s much discussion over innovation metrics.  This article here discusses the overall trends in measuring innovation, but quite frankly I’m disappointed in them (that’s why I’m working on an article now that redefines how innovation should be measured).  This Blogger  wasn’t too keen on the results either.  What are your thoughts?

Posted in Innovation Metrics, Workplace Creativity | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

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