Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Learning from Failure is Good, Prototyping is Better

I think for many (myself included), a “Business Strategy” seems like something big and scary. It is developed after months of planning and hours of meetings, and it will have ramifications for years to come. It is something that is toiled over, sweated over and released out into the world in one fell swoop. As our previous readings and class discussions have explored, this is not exactly how it works. In fact, in many cases, long-term strategic planning doesn’t make sense because of rapidly changing technology or market conditions. In these cases, long-term planning cycles can make companies inflexible and brittle to change, what Carroll and Mui call a tendency to “Stubbornly Stay the Course.” This doesn’t mean that strategy should be considered, thoughtful and the result of extensive research and planning. In fact, many of the catastrophic strategy decisions outlined in Seven Ways to Fail Big are in fact not the result of acting too slowly but rather too impulsively or without proper foresight. And, while I appreciate the authors’ learn-from-failure attitude in choosing to focus not on successes but on valuable stories of failure, considering the high cost of strategic mistakes, I wonder why there hasn’t been more discussion of ways to test strategic moves before they’re made. In design, we would call this prototyping, and while it might not be a widespread concept in the world of strategy, I think it should be.

Though the term may seem ill-fitting for the world of business, a prototype is really just the minimally viable “product” needed to test an idea or evaluate a concept. Prototypes are often the sketches, foam models, or digital wireframes, but they can also take less concrete forms as they do in service blueprints, customer service journey maps and value flow diagrams. These too are prototypes, made popular by disciplines like Service Design, that help make intangible things like business strategies more concrete so that they can be evaluated. The Business Model Canvas, developed by the firm Strategyzer, is a great example of a physical tool used to design and evaluate abstract ideas like business models. Its large, physical nature, which often uses post-it notes to capture content, invites exploration and helps make the impact of abstract strategic decisions visible.

The Business Model Canvas, I would argue, represents just one of many low-stakes tools strategists can and should be using to test ideas before making costly and time-intensive strategic decisions. While learning from the failures of others is important, strategists should nurture a culture of prototyping and be ready to “fail fast and fail often” in search of their next strategic move.

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