Failure’s often the way forward

One step forward, two steps back – such is the rhythm of innovation. ‘Breakthroughs’ are seldom overnight, the ‘aha’ moment rarely first take. In Experimentation Matters, Harvard innovation researcher, Stefan Thomke, urges organisations to harness new technologies to enable frequent and rapid experimentation. Fail early and often, he advises, but avoid wasteful mistakes. Since his book’s publication in 2003, those who research, advise on and successfully practise innovation continue to push the ‘failure is okay’ line, yet not much seems to have changed. Innovation = Creativity x Risk-taking, says innovation author, Robert Brands, “and more likely than not, the bigger the innovation means the greater the chance of failure”. Innovation leaders need to define the risk and bandwidth that’s acceptable to team members, he says, then failure becomes a useful learning experience. Adds innovation consultant Tony Golsby-Smith: “Whenever innovators try something new, they discover things along the way about what works and doesn’t.” Such insights are crucial to the innovation process, yet Strategy&’s latest Global Innovation 1000 study indicates that many companies still regard failure as something to be avoided. In an advance on earlier studies, researchers asked respondents about the organisational systems and cultural attributes that support the capabilities needed to innovate successfully. While there was strong agreement on the two most important attributes – strong identification with the customer and passion for the product/service – very few cited tolerance for failure as essential. “This finding, which contradicts some of the academic research on the subject, raises serious questions about companies’ real appetite for risk-taking in their innovation practices,” the researchers concluded.

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