Want innovation? Embrace failure!

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A theme that I see repeatedly in companies I work with is that they boast how innovative they are. Usually that means their managers demand from their staff to be innovative. At the same time, however, they remind everyone that deadlines have to be met and all has to delivered – and it has to be done! In other words, they make it very clear that there is no room for mistakes and everything has to be done as planned (or, more frequently, as it was already promised to clients by sales). Then they wonder why they get little real innovation – the most obvious answer being that their employees are stupid, because Google scooped “all the good ones” from the market and so we, poor managers, have to do with these lazy retards. How wrong!
Innovation is, by definition, trying new ways of doing things that have not been tried before. If you look at it from this angle it is obvious that more often than not this must end up in a failure. Most things no one tried before are not good ideas – only a few are, but you won’t know it until you try them. And even if you stumble on a really good idea it will need a lot of perfecting and improving before it will be a useful product. “The devil is in the details” – so this process will also involve a lot of failures.

Therefore, in order to have innovation you must make ample room for failure. That means you have to make it safe for people working for you to try new things. They have to know that if they try something new and it won’t work they will praised for trying rather than punished for failing. That is what “investment in innovation” really means. It is not about creating an “innovation department” or buying new hardware or “managing innovation”, it is about being ready to pay for things that very likely will get thrown away.

Someone may ask: what if we can’t afford it? What if we don’t have money to spend on things that won’t work? Then you can always be at least honest with your people (which is always a good idea anyway) and tell them: don’t try new ways of doing things, lets stick to what we know will work, because we have very little room for maneuver this year/quarter/whatever. They will understand. And you will not fool yourself you are “innovating” when you can’t.

But does it really take that much investment in terms of cash to foster innovation? I don’t think so, but this is a topic for a separate post.

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