From Where I Sit – Fail Often to Succeed Sooner

I had the privilege of attending a national conference in Vancouver this past week. The city’s hardly changed a bit since my honeymoon trip back in August 1973!

Sun-filled days; lush, fragrant landscaping around the exquisite Westin Bayshore; mouth-watering cuisine; team-building with colleagues; and a husband who actually joined me for the trip : ahhh. Do you have any idea how magnificent a magnolia tree in bloom is? Or beds of hot pink azaleas, chartreuse euphorbia, tulips, Japanese maples?

Equally thrilling for me is the exposure to Canadian and international speakers. People with credentials, track records, and power points. People who’ve written books. People who know how to engage an audience and hold them for an hour or two. People who can bring an energy, enthusiasm and credibility to their message.

One such person was Tom Kelley, co-founder of IDEO, an American design and development firm. Other than what nature has provided, every other thing on the planet has been designed by someone. From highly specialized surgical tools to the Apple mouse — IDEO’s designed hundreds of products. The company’s motto is “fail often to succeed sooner.”

Kelley suggests we adopt the role of anthropologists to truly see what is going on around us. Ask open-ended questions. Go beyond simply seeking facts. Go to the irrational, emotional, and psychological to discover what your customer really needs. If someone had asked how to improve VCRs, no one would have said, “Let me chuck out all my tapes and machine and replace it with a new machine and shiny disks.” Innovators look at what customers need (but can’t articulate) and rush to fill that need.

Look outside your field to adopt practices or strategies that can be adapted to your setting. Emergency room doctors had much to learn from watching a Nascar pit crew in action. Is there something to be learned from clinics in India doing cataract procedures at a cost of $10 each? Look for T-shaped people, that being people who possess not only a single, deep area of expertise in one field but someone who can learn from others across disciplines.

Kelley reminds us of Edison’s 10,000 attempts at designing the electric light bulb; over 5,100 failed prototypes of the Dyson vacuum cleaner; and WD-40 so named because the first 39 formulations didn’t work.

IDEO operates in an environment of controlled chaos. Their staff of engineers, marketers and designers is encouraged to stay focused, offer wild ideas, have only one conversation at a time and not criticize others during the product development stage. Kelley also suggested that we each seek out ‘reverse mentors’ to tap into young ideas by hooking up with people 10 or 20 years younger than we are.

We were treated to a 20-minute video of the Ted Koppel Nightline episode that chronicled IDEO’s total re-design and fabrication of a new shopping cart in a four-day period from assignment to completion. It was a safe, practical thing of beauty totally useless to anyone thinking of stealing one. Mission accomplished, from where I sit.