Malfunctions Class: Preparing for Challenges In Innovation

 Photo by  GPS

Photo by GPS

When I was 19, I volunteered for Army Airborne School. For two weeks the infamous Black Hats – tough-as-leather Sergeants who prepare soldiers to jump from planes – tested our mettle through ground-based training. Slowly, the ranks thinned to those who were fit enough and focused enough to jump successfully.

On the Friday afternoon before our first jump, they let us sit in shady bleachers for the only block of classroom-style training: “Malfunctions.” This class taught us everything that can go wrong. And I mean everything. The Black Hats were giving us something to think about before we went up in a real plane. They were confident we were dead-fit. Now they wanted to make sure we didn’t end up dead-dead.

I remember everything I learned during Malfunctions. One of the malfunctions, the Twisted Riser, happened to me, and I knew just what to do. Phew!

As experienced innovators, we know there are many things that can go wrong, even if your team has all the right skills. Perhaps we should have a Malfunctions class the Friday before we start a new project. Here’s a list of what we might cover.

Within the project team

  1. Competing obligations / less than full-time focus
  2. Challenge not sized right / too big or too small
  3. Confidence / not willing to get out of the conference room
  4. Recruiting obstacles / difficult to get access to users
  5. Impatience / won’t remain in the unknown long enough to uncover a compelling reframe
  6. Stress of diverge-converge cycles / pace of iteration

Between the project team and the organization

  1. Skepticism towards human-centered design methods
    • Small samples / variability among observations
    • Visualization (vs. text and numbers)
    • Abductive reasoning (vs. linear reasoning)
  2. Unfamiliarity with entrepreneurship methods
  3. Eagerness to learn the methods / slowing the team down
  4. Turf sensitivity / “That’s our area, not yours”

From the Executive Sponsors

  1. Competing obligations / lack of mindshare
  2. Delays in decision-making / Lack of belief
    • Lack of storytelling / “Here’s all the data.” / no story
    • Lack of data / “Here’s the story I’m imagining” / no data
    • Brand risk aversion / “That prototype isn’t customer-ready.”
    • Strategy consulting habits / “Tell us the answer.”
    • Quantitative habits / “How can we be sure?”

OK, which big ones did I overlook? Drop me a note with your top malfunctions, and I’ll share an improved list once I hear from a few people. Reach me at