Try first, fail fast and other lean lessons

January 30, 2018

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Remember when Segway launched in 2002? It was predicted to revolutionise transportation and hit the $1 billion sales mark faster than any company in history. But by 2010 it had sold less than 30,000 units and was termed as one of the 10 biggest tech failures of the decade.

So, what went wrong? The team behind Segway launched it without testing with users whether there was a market need for it. They didn’t accommodate the real transportation needs of users, which led to Segway’s eventual downfall.

There are numerous cases of colossal failures of innovations through the ages, simply because the company did not test with the user or iterate their offering.

We all crave brand new groundbreaking innovations, but tend to often mix innovation with invention.

Innovation isn’t invention.

Innovation is about making changes and adding values to users – in a disciplined way. Lean impact is one way of achieving innovation. It is a trial-and-error method of developing solutions with the least resources possible, testing rapidly, and improving through fast cycles of reiteration with the findings- all to decrease the risk of failure.

For our December Innovation Forum, Ann Mei Chang, board member of BRAC USA and former chief innovation officer and the first executive director of the US Global Development Lab at USAID, talked to us about how we can innovate rapidly and effectively using the lean business approach.

Here are a few takeaways from the discussion:

Innovate solutions, not products

A solution is designed to meet the user’s real needs, to add value to their lives whereas a product is manufactured for sale. Human-centred design develops solutions by involving users in the design process. Because the process incorporates user feedback throughout the design journey, the final solution is more likely to add value to a user than say, if the product was developed based on an initial round of market research.

How much time is too much time?

The consensus is that the more time you spend in an innovation stage, the higher are the chances of money and human capital being wasted.

A vaginal gel for HIV prevention was tested in South Africa with a three-year trial. The trial failed simply because women found applying the cream complicated. This could have been realised within the first few weeks of testing, and saved millions of dollars, but it wasn’t considered till the very end.

Similarly, 10 schools might seem too small for us to test with if we are aiming to scale for 10,000, but problems can be easily found and rectified if we start small, and iterate as we scale up. Which brings us to our next consideration…

Scaling takes time, so why waste more time by experimenting small?

Traditionally large organisations stress about scale, which could lead to overlooking the importance of testing the solution rigorously. That might lead to the solution failing, and resources being wasted.

Instead, we should start by experimenting in a small scale, test repeatedly and refine until the solution proves effective. Only then should we proceed to scale up to bring the desired impacts.

It is also important to embrace the ‘learning from failure’ mentality. Instead of abandoning an initiative when it fails, we could learn from it to re-evaluate our execution plan, and avoid making similar mistakes in the future.

Build-learn-measure: Fast, and often

Lean impact tells us that experimenting and iterating will make our solutions less likely to fail, but only if we do it fast, and often. Once companies like Kodak became market leaders, they failed to learn from mistakes and adapt to emerging opportunities.

For BRAC, where innovation is part of our DNA, it is imperative that we dream of making big changes. But we should also start out small, and experiment, experiment, experiment, to deliver better – which is the spirit of lean impact.


Shafqat Aurin is an interaction specialist, iDesign, BRAC Social Innovation Lab. Anna Kum is an intern at BRAC Social Inniovation Lab. 

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