You want Innovation? Learn to love failure!

Innovation – a huge buzzword that has been doing the rounds increasingly for the last year or so. Technology is driving change at such a rapid pace that organisations are looking to embrace a ‘culture of innovation’ in order to be more responsive. But what does that actually mean?

In order to innovate, you need ideas. Where do these ideas come from? Traditionally the appraisal process (where line manager reviews staff performance and sets objectives) should bring ideas out into the open and get them into the business plan. In terms of sourcing ideas that are truly revolutionary that doesn’t seem to happen.

Why is that? Is it because people are not able to generate ideas ‘on demand’ during that yearly mandated period? Is it because organisational hierarchies subject anything new or challenging to ‘death by committee’? Is it because we’ve been fed a steady diet of risk aversion since the beginning of time? Is it because fluid innovation and rigid business strategy are almost opposing concepts?

I’m fortunate enough to work in a progressive organisation that is trying to make strides in these areas. But any organisation that has a rigid hierarchical structure will suffer from some or all of these road blocks to adopting a culture of innovation. It is a symptom of our workplaces being designed to tackle predictable tasks in an increasingly unpredictable world.

Let’s be really clear though, innovation is no magic wand. It is actually an inherently wasteful process that’s jam packed with failure. Even if you subscribe to a ‘fast failure’ model where you iterate rapidly through different decisions and directions you’re still working on projects that may never come to fruition.

However, we’re deluding ourselves if we pretend that there’s no failure in our normal working lives. We fail all the time, large and small, but most people have gotten good at mitigating it, spinning it or burying it. That’s a shame because we only really learn how to change things for the better when we can understand what went wrong.

So, what’s more desirable? – An intensive period of controlled failure that will deliver some valuable data in terms of what not to do. Or to continue on as we are, applying bandages to failing systems and processes and pretend that everything is okay.

Unfortunately, innovation is not just something that can be turned on like a tap. People need a sandbox in which to play and develop ideas without the crippling pressure to generate results. The key is to keep the invested resource (be that time or money) to an absolute minimum to start with. Fail fast, document your findings, move on to the next iteration or idea. Speed is essential. If you assume that 90% of the concepts you evaluate are destined to be shelved, you need to work your way through the chaff to get to the wheat as rapidly as possible. Even the chaff has a use. Imagine how valuable a few months worth of discarded ideas would be? Can you see any commonalities? Are we trying to do something we’ve already done before? Will this idea work now that external factors have changed?

Much of this thinking comes from the Silicon Valley start-up scene where small teams of developers try to capture the next technological zeitgeist before anyone else. The methodologies of Agile development are finding their way into mainstream thinking. Much of it is common sense. Build a minimum viable product (a workable prototype that has the core features) and release it. If it’s a success, iterate and build on top of what you’ve got. For those startups working long hours with meager initial funding, the key is to get to a functional product to market with as little resource wasted as possible before anyone else. That sounds pretty desirable no matter what sector you’re in huh?

Obviously, most organisations don’t have the luxury of a department dedicated to the pursuit of innovation. But in truth, I think it should be part of everyone’s job description to make it happen. It can’t radiate from one corner of the business or be demanded from the top. People need the time, authority and framework to go and experiment.

In order for any of this to work the stigma around failure needs to go. All the greatest innovators are prolific failures. What separates them from others is that they push forward and keep learning from their mistakes in search of a greater understanding. In essence, this is the sort of culture we need to start baking into organisations (particularly the public & third sector) to unleash that stored potential for creative problem solving in staff which is otherwise largely untapped.