Every business leader has heard the legend of the failed idea. Each story is a little different, but the basic plot is the same: A company pours money, time, technology and mindpower into the next big thing, only to have it spectacularly flop when it hits the market. These failures are painful, embarrassing, loud.

But there’s another story that’s playing out more quietly in large companies: the tragedy of the innovation project with no future. You know them: the pilots that are languishing in purgatory somewhere between a concept and an MVP, waiting for the day they can move forward. For some pilots, that day will never come. The impact is less obvious, but just as devastating. These projects do more than drain capital and stymie growth, they can crush the spirits of your best and brightest talent.

There are many reasons why projects get stuck in pilot purgatory. In this blog post, we’ll explore three common causes and suggest some ways to overcome them, so you can reliably and repeatedly transform ideas into new sources of growth.  

1. Make sure your pilots have a purpose

When my clients are struggling with a raft of pilots that aren’t going anywhere, my first questions are “what is the goal of each pilot?” and “how will you know if each pilot is successful?” 

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The goal of a good pilot is to validate assumptions, so it’s vital to be clear about what those assumptions are.

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Once you spend time to understand and pinpoint the assumptions you’re trying to validate with each pilot, you can design the right approach. You might find that this process helps you create leaner, more focused pilots, and that some critical assumptions can be proved or disproved before committing to a larger investment.

This approach will also give you a full set of KPIs to track against so you can really understand how and where each pilot is performing. This can help get away from an overly simplistic binary of a pilot ‘succeeding’ or ‘failing’ and will enable a properly iterative approach where you evolve and adjust the pilot through the process.

2. Resist the temptation to DIY

Another factor that contributes to pilot purgatory is the temptation to build from scratch. When your pilot requires you to develop something that lies outside your company’s core competency, building everything yourself can delay or stall your pilot.

When designed well, the right partnership approach can help you learn faster. Joining forces with a company that has expertise in a particular space can also allow you to scale your product or service more easily and more quickly, which is essential to ensure that you capture the opportunity before someone else does. Many digital-native companies have leveraged partnerships successfully to help them move faster. Instead of building their technology from scratch, they stack existing cloud services, freeing up time and resources to focus on the parts of their business that differentiate them.

These days, there’s a whole ecosystem of partners out there that can help you achieve your goals. Look for partners that have capabilities you lack (e.g., the right tech, an existing customer base, regulatory knowledge). It’s important to structure your relationship to ensure there is balanced incentive and risk on both sides, and stage-gate the partnership process so that the level of involvement matches the scale of the pilot (for example, use a lighter-touch integration for a short or focused pilot).

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3. Know where you’re going, and bring people along on the journey

One of the most common reasons ideas languish in large organizations is perhaps the saddest. I’ve seen many good, well-validated ideas die slow and painful deaths at the hands of internal misunderstanding and misalignment.

Perhaps stakeholders don’t see how the idea fits into the organization’s growth goals or worry it will cannibalize an existing part of the business. And sometimes concerns go even deeper: People are not convinced that the idea will work and are too afraid of failure to move it forward.

Many internal misunderstandings can be mitigated in two ways. First, it’s critical to clearly define the goal of the pilot and the pathway to scale. Is the end goal to create a newco? If so, how will it be funded? Is the intent to fold it into an existing business? If so, how do you fuel its scale? And who do you need to involve in the process?

Once you’re clear on what you want to achieve and who you need to involve, embedding those players throughout the pilot process—from goal setting to validation to experimentation—and providing visibility to people at all levels of the organization, with progress clearly mapped to your original goals. This ongoing collaboration helps prevent ‘not invented here’ syndrome, where even successful pilots end up dying because key people weren’t brought along the journey.

As for overcoming a pervasive fear of failure, that often depends on providing people with the psychological safety to solve big problems in new ways. We often hear about “failing fast,” but I think the real secret is learning fast. You can start on the journey by establishing an iterative, experimental approach and using it to guide your team’s progress and communicate with your business partners. Reframing the question from “Did the pilot work or not?” to “What exactly changed this time and how can we tweak our experiment to get better results next time?” will help people and business partners focus where it matters—on growth.

Ideas are cheap, but for every idea that tests well, ten won’t work in the wild. Having the mindset and structure in place to let pilots continually reveal the truth is what will ultimately yield new sources of growth, now and in the future.

To learn how you can release your ideas from pilot purgatory and drive always-on growth, contact us.

David Boycott is Strategy Director at Bow & Arrow, part of Accenture Interactive.

David Boycott

Strategy Director – Bow and Arrow, part of Accenture Interactive

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