Safe-fail probes and diffusion of innovations

by Lilia Efimova on 1 October 2009

When we discussed safe-fail probes at CE accreditation course I was struck by the parallels between those and Roger’s characteristics of innovations that influence it’s adoption [from Wikipedia on diffision of innovations]:

Rogers defines several intrinsic characteristics of innovations that influence an individual’s decision to adopt or reject an innovation. The relative advantage is how improved an innovation is over the previous generation. Compatibility is the second characteristic, the level of compatibility that an innovation has to be assimilated into an individual’s life. The complexity of an innovation is a significant factor in whether it is adopted by an individual. If the innovation is too difficult to use an individual will not likely adopt it. The fourth characteristic, trialability, determines how easily an innovation may be experimented with as it is being adopted. If a user has a hard time using and trying an innovation this individual will be less likely to adopt it. The final characteristic, observability, is the extent that an innovation is visible to others. An innovation that is more visible will drive communication among the individual’s peers and personal networks and will in turn create more positive or negative reactions.

Now to safe-fail probes. Dave Snowden describes them as strategies for dealing with complex systems to explore what actually works in a situation where predictions do not work. Dave suggest the following stages for using the approach (bold is mine):

  • Before opinions harden you create a very simple decision rule. Everyone with an idea that has even the remotest possibility of being true or useful creates a safe fail experiment based on the idea. Critically this does not have to be one that would prove the issue, just consistent with the position adopted.
  • Next each proposal is fleshed out, costed and subject to challenge and review, but nothing is ruled out unless rationing of resource is required. This is rarely the case by the way as you keep the experiments small, designed for fast feedback/evolution.
  • For each experiment to be valid its outcome must be observable, not to measure necessarily but to allow the simple rule of amplification or dampening of good or bad patterns to be put into operation. There is no point in an experiment where you can not observe what is happening.
  • The experiments are then reviewed for common elements and resourced along with set up of monitoring and review processes.

In addition to these there is a practice criteria that suggests that the ideas for the experiment should be comparable with the current practice (bold is mine):

Note that in validating an experiment it is not necessary to prove that it will work, but ”it is” necessary to show that it is consistent with a view of what has happened and what could happen in the future.

So, if you compare the quotes (and stretch a bit ;) then there are a lot of similarities. I would think of Roger’s successfully adopted innovations are safe-fail probes that worked and became amplified…

And then the question that is bothering me is that safe-fail probes that didn’t work also show those characteristics of successful innovations :)

{ 10 trackbacks }

mathemagenic (Lilia Efimova)
1 October 2009 at 22:33
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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Sean Murphy 27 July 2012 at 10:51

The Cognitive Edge website has been re-organized and the “Safe-Fail Probes” blog post is now at

I blogged about some related concepts at

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