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March 22, 2009


Jim Belfiore

Great article, Jim. As you and I have exchanged over the years (as recently last week as I watched you shake your head and chuckle quietly as I lectured a room on the essential need for failure in an innovation practice), we perhaps share different views on what failure means.

Or do we?

My own view (which I've written about before) is that failure is not only an option, it's essential. The journey of 10,000 miles begins with a single step. For many, it requires the other several million steps. For a very select few, their first step is onto the teleporter. Most management that I speak with are expecting their teams to journey 10,000 miles in one step, which is a very unrealistic expectation.

Your invocation of the brightest bulb in the innovation bunch made me go back and re-read "Innovate Like Edison", by Michael J. Gelb. Specifically, I wanted to review how Edison treated failure.

According to Gelb, Edison developed five skills for successful invention:

1) Have a solution-centered mindset.
2) Use kaleidoscopic thinking.
3) Use full-spectrum engagement.
4) Become a master at collaboration.
5) Create "Super Value".

Despite mastery of these skills, Edison and his teams at Menlo Park recorded far more failures than successes in pursuing their technical and product goals. Were their failures actually failures? Edison had this to say on the nature of failure:

"I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward."

"Many of life's failures are men who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up."

and one of my favorites...

"Show me a thoroughly satisfied man, and I will show you a failure."

I think what is so inspiring about Edison and others like him that we get a chance to work with every day, is that the ultimate success in any inventive effort, is the learning which results. Regardless of whether the outcome is right or wrong, the highest success-metric for innovators is that something was learned which can be applied in practice to the next attempt.

If the on the last step of a 10,000 mile journey, the inventor discovers the teleporter, that makes the discovery no less important than if it was discovered on the first step. The essential "failures" of all the in-between steps, were still essential.

The real winner, of course, will be the innovation practitioner of methodologies that minimizes the mean distance of the success path.

So perhaps, semantics is a small part of the problem, but more so, it is the owner of the success metric. As innovation practitioners, we ultimately own our metrics for success and failure, regardless of what may be imposed on us by management or markets. In my own case, a failure to achieve a specific goal of an innovation task is a step to ultimate success. Failing frequently and learning (and with a methodology for improving how I apply what I learn) means succeeding more frequently and with higher impact.

Obviously I haven't succeeded in convincing you on the critical need to embrace failure for winning innovation.

I must be doing something right. ;-)

Rosemary Carstens

Jims: First--great analogy since any entrepreneur worth her salt must have just a bit of the riverboat gambler in her personality! I think you are both right and that each technique brings something of value to the table. For me, innovation is examining the problem from all sides and, taking an artist's view, looking hard at the "negative space"--what is missing, what are the other options for filling that space? I know there is never just one answer--to mix metaphors, there are multiple jig-saw pieces that could be plugged into the space and each must be evaluated carefully to measure their potential for success. Persistence is another key tool--you have to look at ALL the pieces to see which might have the best chance to complete the picture. You might have to get out the jig saw again and "operate" on one of the pieces to find the most dynamic solution--but it's there. Each of those steps where you "tweak" results could be considered a failure, but inherent in the approach is the knowledge that somewhere out there there IS a better solution and you will find it. Rosemary Carstens @twitter2go

Christian DE NEEF

I guess you are referring to the "fail early, fail often, fail fast" mantra, often attributed to Silicon Valley thinking. Or also the "You learn a lot by failing 10 times" type advice. As I wrote in a recent conversation with @j4ngis and others on twitter: "We should learn the right lessons" from our failures, but also "History shows that we are poor at learning from our errors". And the latter is not good for Innovation should we apply the above principles.

It seems strange indeed, in times where everyone seems to agree that Innovation is key to surviving the recession, that the focus is on failure. Innovation is not trial and error. Innovation is a subtle mix of creativity, discipline, hard work, perseverance, and stubbornness (or at least, a capability to ignore the "good" advise from others).

Maybe discipline, hard work, and perseverance are my European perspective on innovation, although I think Edison would agree with me here. And many others, scientists or dilettante innovators alike.

- Discipline because for innovation to succeed, or at least to go beyond the "lucky draws", a formal process is required. This process includes learning the lessons referred to above, but also ensures convergent actions, documenting objectives, intermediate results, etc. Without such process, innovation is an "accident de parcours". Thanks to the innovation management process, it becomes a planned outcome. KM is key to the innovation process.

- Hard work because even though the best ideas may come under the shower or other strange circumstances, turning those concepts into tangible products or services requires a lot of development work, finetuning, testing, market validation, packaging, pricing, etc. Failure in any of these steps, may mean failure to get an idea to the market.

- Perseverance because there where things can go wrong, most probably they will. And also because turning a broad concept into a narrow product definition will require much iteration, prototyping, etc. (and I think that we fully agree here on the semantics, iterative development is about convergence, not about failure).

Because of the above, structured innovation certainly is not an oxymoron (to me). Innovation management is a mature way to get there. But innovation management does not guarantee results either. The same way sound project management doesn't guarantee delivery. That's because there are many factors at play, both inside and outside the organization (think shareholders, competitive environment, market pressure, access to funding, etc.). However, by applying innovation management processes, an organization will significantly increase its chances of success...


James Todhunter

Super insights folks. Thanks, Jim, Rosemary, and Christian for the conversation.

Jim, I am sure we will debate the semantics many times in the future. However, I find it amusing that you choose to invoke Edison here. He was quite resolute in his refusal to call his thousands of experiments failures. He understood the role of iteration & experimentation in innovation.

Rosemary, I really like your reference to negative space. This is a very useful thinking tool. I also agree that persistence is a vital personal attribute for any great innovator. Innovation is a journey, and the road to success is rarely a smooth one. Only those with a resolute spirit will have the endurance to complete the journey.

Christian, It is no surprise to me that you have very succinctly zeroed in on the crux of the matter. Innovation is not something that need be left to chance. There are reliable, repeatable methods of innovation practice that remove much of the risk and tilt the odds of success in your favor. This is of course why I used the casino metaphor.

If you can changes the rules of the game so that you can reliably win, you are a fool to not do so. Innovation is just such a game. If you are going to venture into innovation, you should be innovating to win!


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