Thursday, January 09, 2014

Why innovators need a word other than failure

I'm really conflicted today.  On the way to work I've been listening to a MarketPlace series on innovation, entrepreneurship and failure.  The radio programs (available here and here on the web) are interesting and highlight a key contributing factor that many people outside of highly entrepreneurial settings miss.  Innovation, in many shapes and forms, is often built on the ashes and detritus of failure.  While the MarketPlace series is focused primarily on entrepreneurs and startups who are innovating, the same lessons and stories apply to innovation in larger firms.  Much good innovation, in firms of any size, is based on the experience and knowledge gained from previous failures.

But we risk creating what I'll call the Failure Fetish, the belief that we MUST fail in order to succeed in the future.  Further, we risk creating a High Church of Failure, demanding that individuals and companies risk far too much and learn far too little.  Today's story featured a serial entrepreneur with a PhD in vision sciences who has had two entrepreneurial efforts end prematurely.  She is a 40 something mom with teenagers, a lot of debt and is considering mortgaging her house to try again.  Entrepreneurs and innovators need to be single minded and risk averse, but they also need a rational outlook and a life! 

While "failure" is often a key contributor to better innovation, what we need are new words to describe what "failure" entails.  It isn't the failure that really matters, after all, it's what you learn from the failure and how you apply that learning in the future that matters.  A reference here to Einstein is probably valuable:  insanity is defined as doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results.  Failure is valuable if, and only if, it teaches something that we didn't know, and we can incorporate that learning into future activities to create more insight and value.

Why we need a new word

But I think we need a new word to describe what we mean when we talk about "failure".  The experience of failure, especially as an entrepreneur, is terrible.  Shutting down a company, or simply retracting a product that didn't achieve anticipated success, is heart-wrenching.  Failure has so many negative connotations, and can become a label for people, a status.  People can become a "failure", instead of their ideas failing in the marketplace.  What we ought to be talking about is experimenting.

An experiment is an attempt to test a hypothesis, and gain new learning.  The problem with the word "experiment" is that experiments are not meant to be permanent solutions, but rather short trials in which we test a solution, hopefully with a hypothesis, and then compare the results to expected or anticipated results.  But what we are often talking about when we talk about "failure" is more akin to experimenting - testing, learning, reworking, testing again and finally implementing.

What comes from experimenting?  Learning, what works and what doesn't work.  Experience, from having tested a hypothesis, having placed a product in a customer's hands.  Knowledge that can be called on and applied in another attempt.  People who have tried and failed, or experimented in my language, have the ability to review a situation, evaluate a product and point out issues or weaknesses that others around them don't see.  That doesn't come from enthusiasm or academic excellence.  Those insights come from experience.  What the VCs in Silicon Valley ultimately buy when they invest in experienced entrepreneurs is the insight not to make the simple mistakes, the ability to quickly call up past experience and use it to avoid challenges.  What Malcolm Gladwell described in Blink.

The lack of corporate failure

But "failing" at the corporate level carries a significantly different connotation.  While an entrepreneur may "fail" and shut down a small business with a few employees (not to make light of that, having done it myself) a corporation has a much larger stake in success or failure.  Designing, building and releasing a product that may "fail" in the marketplace has very large costs in terms of development, and in terms of missed opportunities.  It can have a significant impact on stock prices, shareholders and all employees.  So "failure" in the corporate world is often FINAO.  Failure is not an option.

So we innovators need a new word for what we mean by "failure".  What we mean are short, sharp experiments meant to gain knowledge and insight that leads to better products, which can be brought to market quickly, with less risk and a higher degree of success.  Corporate innovators need all the trappings of failure - learning, experience, insights - but without the ripple effect.  What we need, as corporate innovators, is the ability to experiment, prototype and test new concepts and products as thoroughly and as rapidly as possible.  Then, our experiments become controlled "mini-failures" that offer much the same learning, but without the devastating effects more common in a startup.

What corporate innovators need is more space to experiment, more opportunities to experiment with new ideas and solutions, a better prototyping capability and access to customers and prospects who understand the value of testing prototypes and conducting experiments.  The faster we learn, and the more effectively we develop knowledge, skills and experience, the better innovators we'll be.  Capturing all of the benefits of "failure" with few of the downsides.

I'll worship at the church of experimentation, rather than at the church of failure, thanks very much.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:50 AM


Blogger Southern Growth Studio said...

Hi Jeffrey,

I am glad to hear someone else with the same sentiments- why embrace failure! We wrote on the same topic a few weeks ago: Since When is Failure a Good Thing?

9:22 AM  
Blogger funkmofo said...

Hey Jeffrey,

I think more broadly there is a problem around language - it's not just failure, innovation is an equally over-used and problematic term. Among entrepreneurs, the same goes for "disruption"

I attempted to go "beyond buzzwords" in my latest book, compiling 20+ perspectives on innovation. We're offering the entire 300+ page book as a free download. I'd love to hear your thoughts on it, and see if we can work together as we look towards launching a new innovation community site aimed at addressing some of these concerns.

7:54 AM  
Blogger Ana said...

I know far too many people who never try for fear of failure, and because of how its viewed. I rather like celebrating the people who did take a chance, and try, and deal with the emotional downs of failure. It was hard -

But, from the failure, I built a new company. I doubt I would have appreciated my small successes were it not for the failures before it.

8:34 PM  

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