Humility and The Law of Failure

Alberto Savoia worked at Google as "Innovation Agitator" and he helped lead and launch the Google AdWords product. He is a specialist on innovation, so it made sense that his presentation was given in my Creativity and Innovation. When Savoia talks about innovation, it's in the context of the market: the buying and selling of products -- but I found myself thinking about something else as I listened to the presentation.

Savoia's Law of Failure is this: "Most new ideas will fail, even if competently executed." There are many well-documented cases of high profile failures in the market -- even products that had millions (or billions) behind them in development and marketing, and even products that worked really, really well and did exactly what they were designed to do. Some examples of "notable well-executed failures" from Savoia's presentation included a few you might remember, and some you probably won't: Crystal Pepsi, the movie "John Carter," Google Wave, and the Iridium Satellite Phone. Each of these products had tens (or hundreds) of millions invested in them, and they flopped.

There are plenty more examples where these came from of innovations gone awry. Search on Google for "Google graveyard" or "Microsoft morgue" and you'll discover that two of the most successful companies in the history of the world have laundry lists of ideas that launched and quickly failed. Do you remember Aardvark by Google? Me neither. What about Microsoft Kin? Exactly.

So what's the point? Almost all of these products went through focus groups and received some degree of favorable, positive reactions -- but they still flopped. One lesson is that data always beats opinion. Savoia developed a concept at Google that he now teaches at Stanford called "pretotyping," which is like prototyping but much, much faster and less expensive. Savoia says, "make sure you are building the right it before you build it right." Pretotyping is a way to efficiently gather data to see if your "it" is right, before you invest time and money and resources in creating something.

As this presentation unfolded, my mind kept returning to education reform. "Most new ideas will fail, even if competently executed." This could be written on the gravestone of many new education policy fixes over the years. Of course, many new ideas are not competently executed, but many are, and they still end up getting tossed in the bin. Savoia would likely argue that this is because they got the "it" wrong -- their idea, even if it was a good one and even if they did everything right -- wasn't a fit for the market (or, in this case, the students/teachers/parents responsible for implementing it) or that moment in history. Sure, there are important distinctions between market innovations and education policy reform, and unique challenges for each, but there is a parallel here: both are complex endeavors more likely to end in failure than success.

As Chair of the California State Board of Education Mike Kirst might say, this should lead you to humility. Some people respond to challenges like this with caution and resignation -- we wouldn't want our almost-inevitable failures to make things worse, would we? Others are excited by the challenge, anxious to try and create something meaningful that makes a difference. I'm with the latter.