The 10 pitfalls of digital transformation – #3: To succeed, you must cut bait early and fail fast: but not too fast

The 10 pitfalls of digital transformation #3: To succeed, you must cut bait early and fail fast: but not too fast

Although it sounds like a Chinese proverb, “success comes through fast failure” is a mantra that everyone undertaking digital transformation should repeat, three times daily. You learn by making mistakes – and from quickly identifying what’s not going to work. When you fail fast, you also fail forward – because you make progress towards your goal, even if it’s through learning what won’t work, or by identifying the areas in need of improvement. I talked about the importance of failing forward, fast and the ability to rapidly switch strategy in a recent blog post.

Did you know that it took the Wright brothers more than two years of trying before they succeeded in their first controlled flight? Their first attempts, in the year 1900, almost literally crashed and burned. Instead of giving up, the Wright brothers took their learnings each time and applied them to the next attempt, making iterative forward steps. Finally, late in 1902, their third glider became the first fully controllable aircraft, with roll, pitch, and yaw controls, and just over a year later, in 1903, they launched their first powered aircraft.

Considering that building airplanes was a hobby for the Wright brothers, their advances were only possibly by applying the learnings from failing fast. In their case, if something (literally) was not going to fly, then there was no point in developing it any further. Instead, it was time to move on to the next concept.

A word of caution however, there are many potentially successful projects that are written off as failures not because the project was in fact a failure, but rather because it was poorly implemented. Imagine if the Wright brothers had decided that flying was impossible, just because they had poorly constructed the wings on their glider! Making a bad start in the actual execution of the program, either due to bad planning, or a lack of foresight leads to digital disappointment.

In many respects, small startups have a significant advantage with digitalisation programs – simply, they can be fearless. They aren’t tied up in complex processes, they have the freedom to try things out and, if necessary, to fail. These companies are desperate to prove themselves and to get a foot in the door of the market. They are agile, and hungry. They can fail fast and fail forward very quickly indeed. The danger is when this drive for success leads to projects being deemed failures too early, when actually, a tweak in the deployment could have yielded the results they were seeking. This is where experience counts!

Larger companies on the other hand are not driven by the same survival instinct and they are often slowed down by many more processes and complex decision making. However, they are likely to invest more into new ideas and technologies and often have great expertise at their disposal. The challenge lies in the expectations that are placed on projects that receive significant investment. Nobody wants to go back to management to admit they failed, whether fast or otherwise, with an expensive project.

How can these larger organizations fail fast but fail forward? I recommend they undertake pilot programs to test proofs of concept. These agile projects can be rolled out rapidly and constantly tweaked to ascertain what does and does not deliver the business benefit required. At Fujitsu we are advocates of this approach and we use this with our customers. We’ve reached this point through our own adaptation. We’ve combined the benefits of being a large company, such as the billions we invest in R&D each year, with a start-up approach. This delivers the best of both worlds to our customers; agility backed up with scale and experience.

Digital is a journey, not a destination

In summary, when it comes to digital transformation projects, the journey is the process. Don’t be afraid to question and edit projects in realtime, but don’t be too quick in classifying something as a failure, when actually it is just the implementation that is flawed. At the same time, keep a critical eye open for the warning signs – if your proof of concept cannot solve the problem you have defined on a small scale, then you need to need to cut bait, collect the learnings and move on.

Have you missed some of my blog series on avoiding the 10 pitfalls of digital transformation? If so please read the full series here:

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