Safaricom's Bob Collymore: The secret to innovation no one talks about

On the outside, Safaricom’s success story looks effortless. But on the road there, we have met innovation’s ugly sister – failure – several times.

INNOVATION not only forms the biggest part of my organisation’s DNA, it is the fluid that keeps the brand youthful, and more importantly in the fast-paced mobile industry, relevant.

To the outside eye, Safaricom’s success story can look effortless.

But on the road to success, we have met innovation’s ugly sister – failure – several times.

READ: Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore: M-Pesa could have conquered the world, but we didn’t — and this is why

For instance, about four years ago, we decided to launch Daktari 1525 (“Daktari” means doctor in Swahili and 1525 was the short-code). It was a tele-triage service where customers could dial a number and speak to a doctor 24 hours a day to get first level healthcare, information and emergency services.

In a country where patient to doctor ratios can be over ten times the levels recommended by World Health Organisation (WHO) but where every adult had access to a mobile line, Daktari 1525 was a first test of how transformative mobile could be for the health sector.

Situated at the intersection between need and opportunity, the product ticked all the right boxes.

It was award-winning stuff.

With little prompting, Safaricom suddenly found itself in the company of the world’s giants like Uber, Amazon or Target when we placed ninth on Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies Awards in 2013. The award recognised the company for bridging a health care gap with telecom.

In the short 12 months of its existence, Daktari 1525 touched over 195,000 lives, with daily call rates growing from 290 shortly after launch to an average 1,500 a day.

With all the outward successes, it was understandably difficult to make the decision to shut the product down after just 12 months.

Where did it all go wrong?

After some deep analysis, we realised that subscribers were not getting the value they expected during the call. In short, it was difficult to establish the right level of triage using a simple one minute conversation.

Doctors who were supposed to be on call, were not.

And for many reasons, our relationship with the implementing partner for Daktari 1525 was not working. We soon realised pulling the product out of the market was inevitable despite its successes.

A few years later we find new partners where our visions are more aligned, build a brand new product, reconfigure the features and benefits for the customer and launch “Sema Doc” (Talk to the Doctor.) 

Too often, when products fail, they are quickly swept under the carpet and focus quickly moves to the next big launch. And this is no more true than in my company.

READ: ‘The true measure of M-Pesa’s - and Safaricom’s - big success is how we transform lives’

Very few individuals or companies realise the value that comes from embracing constructive failure and learning to “fail up”.

This is often because society tells us failure is wrong. In truth, failure forces us to face the lessons markets may be telling us, and to adjust our behaviour accordingly.

Daktari 1525 was not a bad product, it was just poorly executed. The market was ready but the approach was wrong. It took us a while to understand how to turn that failure to improvement but at least we got there in the end.

This is the only way that we can reap the benefits of failure, and benefit from the art of “Failing Up”.

Three tips on “Failing Up”

1.            Fail Fast. Don’t keep doing something if your instincts and the market tell you otherwise, no matter how successful it may appear to be nor how much you have sunk into the product or idea.

2.           Find the Black Box. The first priority for an airline after a crash is to find the black box. Without these Black Boxes flying would not be as safe as it is today.

3.           Separate the person from the issue. If you don’t do this you will never realise the real lessons from the failure.

First published on LinkedIn

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