Why Making Mistakes is a Key Innovation Skill

One innovation topic that consistently gets people worked up concerns the value of failure. Some say that you have to embrace failure when you are trying to innovate. This makes some sense, since part of the innovation process is controlled experimentation. However, that whole ’embracing failure’ concept tends to rub people the wrong way – and so many others say that we are better off trying to learn from success.

Personally, I fall more towards the embracing failure camp. However, there are two keys to taking advantage of failure. The first is to be aware that there is a taxonomy of failure – it is much better to fail quickly and cheaply – preferably at the levels of ideas or prototypes rather than full products or entire systems.

The second key is that you need to learn from ideas that don’t work. Stefan Lindegaard had some interesting discussions last month around the concept of smartfailing – which is built on the idea that you can systematically learn from ideas that don’t work out.

Fail Road

Earlier this week, Jon Lebkowsky wrote a post that bears on this issue. You should read the whole post, but here is one of the key quotes (which is taken from a post by Thanissaro Bhikkhu):

Several years ago, a sociologist studied students in a neurosurgery program to see what qualities separated those who succeeded from those who failed. He found ultimately that two questions in his interviews pointed to the crucial difference. He would ask the students, “Do you ever make mistakes? If so, what is the worst mistake you’ve ever made?” Those who failed the program would inevitably answer that they rarely made mistakes or else would blame their mistakes on factors beyond their control. Those who succeeded in the program not only admitted to many mistakes but also volunteered information on what they would do not to repeat those mistakes in the future.

This makes a lot of sense. If every idea that we try out works, that’s not a sign that we’re brilliant, it’s a sign that we’re not trying out enough ideas. In that circumstance, we are not generating enough cognitive variety.

Innovation is an evolutionary process – to work well it depends on having a wide variety of ideas, a good selection process, and a method for getting ideas to spread. Variety, selection and replication – the three building blocks of evolution.

If all of our ideas work, we aren’t introducing enough variety into the process.

That is why failure is important. It is a sign of a healthy innovation process. You don’t necessarily have to embrace failure, but you must be willing to learn from it.

If you combine it with learning, making mistakes is a key innovation skill.

(photo from flickr/fireflythegreat under a Creative Commons License)

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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3 thoughts on “Why Making Mistakes is a Key Innovation Skill

  1. In my own experience, I learn far more from failure than from success … and for better or worse, I’ve been offered many “teachable moments”.

    I recently read a passage in Johah Lehrer’s book, How We Decide, that offers some corroborating perspectives on the importance of failure. My favorite was a quote by Niels Bohr: “an expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that an be made in a very narrow field”.

    I’m not an expert yet, but I’m working on it :)

  2. I’m the same Joe, and like you, I’ve had many opportunities to learn from failure! That’s a terrific quote from Bohr – I’m going to have to read that Lehrer book I think…

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