Thursday, October 11, 2012

Innovators have short memories

I see the disappointing news today that Lance Armstrong has been accused by his entire team of doping, and providing performance enhancing drugs to his teammates.  While this is a serious accusation, with a lot of evidence to support it, don't worry if you are a Lance fan.  America has enormous redemptive powers.  If he does the right things and focuses on positive outcomes, he'll be back in favor in no time.  That's because as a nation we have short memories.

Do you listen to the NBA?  Like Marv Albert as a sportscaster?  Do you recall his career was "finished" when he was caught in a very compromising situation?  Many thought he'd never call major sports again.  Yet today he is a fixture.  Even Richard Nixon was rehabilitated late in life to become a trusted elder statesman.  Why am I spending all of my innovation blog post talking about people who were disgraced and fought their way back to prominence?  Because as innovators, we need to adopt the mantra of short memories and redemption, just like these individuals have demonstrated.

We tried that before

Perhaps no statement does more to hamper innovation than the phrase "we tried that before".  This phrase is limiting because it suggests that the idea failed previously and doesn't deserve another chance.  It demonstrates long memories, resistance to redemption or the recognition that circumstances change, and what may not have worked previously may work in a different time and a different climate.  Previous failure does not predict future failure.

We have strange decision making and thinking processes, reinforcing past successes and downplaying past failures as if circumstances and market conditions remain the same.  Those forces are in fact changing at ever increasing rates.  Ideas and concepts that may have failed in the past may become much more relevant as circumstances change.

Failure is not an option

Another favorite quote, and an enemy of innovation.  We tend to remember failures far longer than successes in business.  But may "failures" can lead to better ideas and better insights.  Rather than branding something a failure, perhaps we should identify it as a learning opportunity and incorporate the learning into new ventures, rather than returning again and again to the fact that something "failed".  Ideas fail for many reasons - timing, market sentiment, technology, marketing, channels and many more factors.  Any one can cause a "failure" of a viable idea.  We need to learn and exercise the power of short memories and understand how to redeem ideas and people who are trying to innovate, in much the same way that Marv Albert or Richard Nixon were habilitated.

Classic "Failures"

Einstein was a failure as a youth and could have been easily ignored.  He was considered slow in school and was working as a lowly clerk in a patent office when he did his best work.  Edison's first major invention was a financial failure, and he went on to be quoted as saying "I have not failed.  I've just found 10,000 ways that don't work".  This quote is apocryphal, but another similar one isn't: "I am not discouraged because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward".  Edison and Einstein knew that failure wasn't terminal, and that good innovators have short memories.

Organizational Memories

Unfortunately for innovators and innovation, organizations like elephants have long memories.  These are embedded in corporate culture, a pervasive and powerful force.  Organizational memory is strongest about failure, and reactionary when failure is revealed and examined.  Organizational memory teaches others to avoid incidents, ideas and people that have failed, rather than recognize the power and necessity of short memories.  Long memories are valuable when product cycles are long and competition is low.  Short memories are important for innovators.

The Lance Armstrong idea

So, what's the current "Lance Armstrong" idea in your business?  How do you react to the idea and the people who championed it?  This isn't to say that all bad ideas were really good ones - there are after all really bad, noxious ideas.  But the real insight is discovering when and why an idea "failed" and understanding how and why it can be rehabilitated or what to learn from it.  Innovators need short memories in companies that often value long memories and reactionary thinking.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:39 AM


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