General manager, Latin America, Canada & Caribbean Regions Worldwide Public Sector, Amazon Web Services
In today’s competitive marketplace, a tremendous value is being placed on developing a culture of innovation in the workplace. Businesses big and small, from every imaginable sector, realize they must innovate to prosper. But the question is how?
Talking about innovation is the easy part. The real test of an organization’s commitment to innovation and invention is how it prepares its employees to experiment and embrace the inevitable failure that’s critical to getting there.
The reality is that failure is a necessary part of the journey that leads to true innovation, learning and expansion. Building something new is not and should not be easy, and breakthroughs rarely come on the first pass. It takes frequent testing, experimenting – and failing.
Jeff Bezos celebrates the fact that Amazon.com Inc., the company he leads, is the “best place in the world to fail.” But that cultural approach is more than just talk. Amazon has tools and processes in place that empower everyone and anyone to go down a bunch of dark alleys as part of the journey to learn, iterate and invent something new that will better serve our customers.
Whether you work in an early-stage startup environment, a multinational enterprise, a small business or even a government agency, you can implement some of these tools in your workplace to start this culture shift and approach failure in a way that will help breed experimentation and, ultimately, innovation. Here are some ideas.
Create the narrative
Slide decks with slick visuals may be the standard approach to pitching a new idea. However, this style tends to flatten ideas and give licence to gloss over important details and context, while making presentations prone to audience interruptions and groupthink.
Instead, create a narrative. Write your idea down in real words with sentences, verbs and nouns. At Amazon, we shape our narratives in six-page memos that are designed to push better thought and understanding about what’s important, forcing you to confront elements in your head that haven’t been fully baked yet. Why six pages? It’s long enough to tell a short story, but not so long that you get lost in the weeds.
Investing in the narrative breeds deeper, more thoughtful discussions and more confident decision-making. Taking the time to scrutinize and iron out all the hard details up front also enables teams to hit the ground running without the risk of having to deal with unknowns that might impede on their ability to test and iterate.
Push yourself and your teams to take chances and experiment with ideas big and small, understanding and accepting that most of them will fail. The learning that comes from this process is invaluable, and the reward is that staff are going to hit an occasional home run that makes up for all those experiments that didn’t work out. That success is going to encourage more rapid innovation and additional experimentation to advance the cycle.
True innovation doesn’t wait for perfection. When you fail early, you also learn early, making it more likely that you will avoid bigger failures later on. Get your idea out into the market, test and learn, then continue iterating until you get it right.
Work in “two-pizza teams” – teams that are small enough to be fed by two pizzas or less. Big teams can stifle creativity and make it more difficult to make decisions. Smaller teams are more productive and agile, with the ability to experiment, test, fail and learn quickly since everyone is closer to the controls of the thing you are trying to build.
Failing at scale
The size and scope of your failures needs to grow at the same pace as your business growth. Scaling the number of experiments you try from 10 to 100 to 1,000 is going to mean a lot of failure – and that’s okay, because the payoff is a dramatic increase in your organization’s capacity to innovate over the long term.
Know when to pivot
A final key principle is understanding when it’s time to quit. If your experimentation is continually failing, don’t let pride or stubbornness get in the way of pulling the plug and moving on in a new direction.
An example of this is IMRSV Data Labs Inc., an Ottawa-based customer of Amazon Web Services that developed artificial intelligence and machine learning tools to help separated couples understand the potential range of outcomes of divorce litigation. Recognizing that market and regulatory limitations would affect its ability to scale, IMRSV’s staff decided to pivot away from the legal sector altogether and took the lead to experiment with their business model and technology in an effort to reach new customers.
The freedom to test and learn enabled IMRSV to create new and diversified business applications. Currently, it has a few revenue streams and teams working on different areas – for example, it provides medical intelligence and support to the public health sector, converts call-centre conversations into quality-control insights, or forecasts potential health and safety risks for postal service carriers.
At the end of the day, the IMRSV team was empowered to acknowledge the issue and pivot. Cutting an investment in something that isn’t working isn’t admitting defeat. It offers the opportunity to reallocate those resources and brain power to continue experimenting with the next great idea.
Cloud technology enables customers to experiment without a big upfront capital expense, making it easier for them to chart their own course in search of something great. Great ideas and innovation can come from anywhere when the workplace has the courage to experiment. So, don’t base your success on how you convert ideas into innovation – measure it on your willingness to try, to fail and to learn from the journey.
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