Yesterday, as I was driving near DB Kay & Associates “World Headquarters” in Santa Cruz, I noticed a home-painted smart car. I wasn’t quick enough with my camera to take a picture, but it looked kind of like this.
Pretty cool, right? Kind of fun? I actually imagined a family afternoon with paint brushes or markers, excited kids kibitzing and contributing. Whether this paint job is your cup of tea or not, you have to admit that it’s more innovative than the metallic silver or blue most of us buy by default.
I thought about doing this myself and immediately thought, absolutely not! There is no way in the world I’m going to paint my own car, fun or otherwise.
Naturally, this got me thinking, well, why not? I don’t think of myself as a timid person; I can think outside the box. I’m not a great artist (understatement!) but the rest of my family is pretty good. My car’s already pretty distinctive; I don’t mind having it be a little more eye-catching.
So why would I not consider painting my own car? Why haven’t you done it? For most of us, the cost of failure is too high.
I mentioned this was a smart car (they prefer the lowercase ‘s.’) One interesting smart design feature is that the bodywork is made of plastic panels that pop in and out. You can buy multiple sets and swap colors based on your mood. Or, in this case, you can buy a set of panels for under $400…and have fun painting them. Don’t like the result? It’s not like you need a new $5000 paint job. Just get another set of panels, or paint them over and start again. “Failure” is cheap—which means it’s not failure at all, just an interesting learning experience.
At that moment, I started looking around at our own business, and our clients’ businesses, and everywhere I looked, I saw operations that were Too Expensive To Fail. Multimillion dollar CRM implementations. Program offices working for months and years on a big initiative. And yes, even six-figure consulting engagements, planned out six months in advance. To quote Apollo XIII, “Failure is not an option.” But in this case, that’s not a good thing.
Maybe when we plan our work, we can do so in a way that is explicitly designed to make it OK to paint over our mistakes. Maybe we can stash a set of $400 body panels in our project plan somewhere. Maybe then, we can feel the freedom to innovate, to create—to really make some art.
I know none of this is a new idea—I’m a big fan of Agile, and I’ve written here about The Lean Startup before. It’s just that, seeing the joy and creativity that went into that smart car, well, it all just made a little more sense.
How have you reduced the cost of failure at work? And what have you seen as a result?
ps – after I wrote this post, but before I posted it, I read a wonderful piece by Clay Shirky about HealthCare.gov making a similar point about “Failure is Not an Option,” and far more good points besides.