How to Fail at Innovation

The way to fail at innovation is to try to avoid failing.

The idea of failure has popped up quite a bit this week for some reason. Innovation is filled with tensions that we have to become comfortable with if we’re going to succeed. One of the big tensions is between success and failure – when you’re innovating, you can’t have one without the other. In a very interesting post, Arne van Oosterom suggests that this is good argument for emphasising adaptability rather than innovation for many firms, as this eliminates the discomfort caused by the tension between the two.

I am in complete agreement with van Oosterom that adaptability is a desirable trait for organisations to develop. But in doing so, I don’t think we can abandon innovation. I think that we need to develop strategies for dealing with failure.

This was the conclusion reached by both Peter Yates (ex-CEO of PBL, among other things) and Patricia Cross (Non-Executive Director of Wesfarmers and numerous other organisations) in their talks at the Leaders’ Edge Luncheon here in Brisbane on Tuesday. The topic of the talks was ‘Tales from the Corporate Battlefield’ – and it sounds like both of them have been in plenty of battles. And one of the common themes that they touched on is that if you’re doing anything worthwhile, you will experience failures. It’s not fun, it’s not something to be embraced, but it’s inevitable.

This theme was also addressed by Hutch Carpenter in a fantastic post this morning. In making the point that innovative firms will fail, he included this picture:

He includes this quote from Jeffrey Phillips – one of the best innovation bloggers around:

As Edison and countless others have demonstrated, you rarely get it right the first time, and if you are stymied by early failure, then you’ll never find and implement the best ideas. Innovation, as has been pointed out by individuals with far more to say about it than me, will create some failures. Your job isn’t to avoid the failures, since you can’t predict them in advance, but to reduce the cost and impact of the inevitable failures. In other words, keep moving.

So there’s the contradiction that we have to deal with – if we’re going to successfully innovate, we have to fail. The key is to figure out how to do it as cheaply as possible. As I’ve said before, if everything that you try works, then you’re not trying enough things. These contradictions are one of the things that makes managing hard, but it’s also one of the things that makes good managers so valuable. Failing isn’t fun, and it’s natural to try to avoid it. However, it is a necessary element of success.

In other words, the one guaranteed way to fail at innovation is to try to avoid failing.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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4 thoughts on “How to Fail at Innovation

  1. Hi Tim,

    Great post! Just one thing I would like to add: my proposition “Be adaptable not Innovative” was meant as a (mild) provocation. What I was getting at is that if you are adaptable you’ll be better equipped to use the space you leave for experimentation (failure) as a positive force for innovation. And you probably are more prepared to give your employees more space to fail. By doing so you’ll create a culture of trust. And in such a culture innovation thrives.

  2. Hi Arne – thanks for stopping by and thanks for the clarification. I think that’s a very good way to approach it, actually.

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