Why failing little and often is the recipe for successful digital innovation

Don’t be afraid of failure – it’ll make you a better innovator, says Ritam Gandhi.

After months of setbacks, trials of England’s NHSX Covid-19 contact tracing app are now back up and running for the second time round.

The original app was championed as the ‘homegrown’ digital solution that would release us safely from lockdown; yet it will go down in history as another national technological blunder. £12m was spent on development alone before it transpired in June that the app didn’t work properly on iPhones.

The Government was forced back to the drawing board to use the technology that had already been built by tech giants Apple and Google.

This mishap is reminiscent of the 2002 National Program for IT (NPfIT) – hailed to be the largest public-sector IT program ever attempted in the UK. The project was set to revolutionise the use of healthcare informatics in the NHS and push our national health system into the digital age. Nine years later, the program was finally shelved after costing the taxpayer more than £10bn.

Only by failing incrementally and learning from mistakes can genuinely powerful solutions be created.

Although these failures to deliver timely and effective solutions have set public health efforts back, there are nevertheless many lessons to be learned.

A risk-averse culture stymies digital innovation

The downfall of many large organisations – and this is true across both the public and private sectors – is the aversion to change. Specifically, it is the reluctance to take risks that are not guaranteed to succeed.

In the public sector especially, a risk-averse culture is to be expected. There is more at stake when working with public money, and few would be keen to pursue risky new ideas. And yet, without a change in attitude, Governments must be willing accept that their digital innovation efforts will continue to prove futile.

For instance, many large organisations favour a long-term, sequential process when it comes to building a product (not worlds apart from how a car might be built on an assembly line). Product requirements are generally set in stone early on; there is a rigid set-up in place with clear lines of authority, and development schedules are generally laid out far in advance.

While it is good to have clear deliverables in mind, an overly formal process is simply not ideal when it comes to developing novel software solutions. It leaves little room for error and means that teams are unable to experiment with new ideas as and when they arise – they are limited to working within a framework that was specified at the very beginning of the project.

Instead, the development process needs to be agile in order to take into account the fast pace of changes and evolution in technology. Otherwise, teams risk information which was relevant at the beginning of the process becoming outdated along the way and rendering the envisioned product obsolete.

A more effective way of working is to embrace agile development, whereby the testing process runs constantly throughout the product cycle. By working in short ‘sprints’ and revisiting the work regularly, iterative design empowers teams to properly assess the technology in stages and suggest features or changes that could add value.


This method also prevents the entire project from failing entirely, as product features are delivered gradually, leaving room for developers to fix any issues as and when they arise. It also means that many of the most common project pitfalls, such as cost and schedule predictability, can be dealt with in a more controlled manner.  

Tapping into a startup mentality

A degree of risk is both vital and inevitable in the process of innovation. Rather than allowing themselves to become bogged down by bureaucracy, large organisations need to tap into the mindset of startups and SMEs when pursuing large-scale digital transformation projects.

Like their smaller counterparts, they must be also willing to fail along the way. Indeed, only by failing incrementally and learning from mistakes can genuinely powerful solutions be created.

In reality, no one can know exactly what the customer really needs until they have experimented with potential approaches. That is why it is important to test, learn what the customer wants and iterate on it, step by step.

More often than not, creating something completely new will result in failure. Very rarely will teams land on the right solution the first time round, which is why perseverance is key.

Importantly, any risks taken do not necessarily have to be momentous. Smaller, faster teams understand the value of rapid prototyping: the process of quickly mocking up what a system will look like and how it will function.

Initial user research and rounds of user testing should result in a proof of concept, with further rounds of testing resulting in design iterations to improve the user experience.

At each stage of implementation, a startup would have carefully assessed the rollout based on progress made, and perhaps more importantly, with the flexibility to manoeuvre challenges encountered along the way. Only when an idea has been proven, the designs tested, and technical feasibility demonstrated would the resource then be spent on a larger scale deployment.

Indeed, generating feedback in the initial stages of design is invaluable, and yet this step is often overlooked. Rapid prototyping enables teams to experiment with different approaches and ideas, seek out user feedback, and ultimately improve the final product.

This removes the risk of an overwhelming failure, while allowing developers the breathing room they need to make mistakes they need to on the way to building a truly valuable product. If something isn’t quite right, those tasked with building the product have the freedom to go back and make the necessary amendments before moving forward.

Ultimately, large organisations need to foster a culture where new ideas are treated like good ideas until proven otherwise. When approached carefully, failure is a great opportunity for growth and should be at the heart of any digital innovation strategy.

Mistakes will be made in every digital project – it is how these mistakes are managed that will determine whether the outcome is successful.


About the author

Ritam Gandhi is founder and director of Studio Graphene



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