Sunday, March 22, 2009

Teleporting is a Good Walk (Failed)

I just got back from a long week in Southern California. I was presenting a paper at TRIZCon 2009 and working with several clients. While giving my paper, I made a comment on the nature of innovation practice that I make frequently during seminars or working with clients:

"Failure is not just an option. It's essential."

I noticed over at Innovating To Win that Jim Todhunter's latest article focused on this aspect of innovation. We've had a pleasant difference of opinion on this topic for a number of years. As with many of Jim's articles, I found myself re-reading some of the many books on innovation theory and practice I've compiled, and offered the following response to his latest musing.

Great article, Jim. As you and I have exchanged over the years (as recently last week as I watched you shake your head and chuckle quietly as I lectured a room on the essential need for failure in an innovation practice), we perhaps share different views on what failure means.

Or do we?

My own view (which I've written about before) is that failure is not only an option, it's essential. The journey of 10,000 miles begins with a single step. For many, it requires the other several million steps. For a very select few, their first step is onto the teleporter. Most management that I speak with are expecting their teams to journey 10,000 miles in one step, which is a very unrealistic expectation.

Your invocation of the brightest bulb in the innovation bunch made me go back and re-read "Innovate Like Edison", by Michael J. Gelb and Sarah Miller Caldicott. Specifically, I wanted to review how Edison treated failure.

According to Gelb & Caldicott, Edison developed five skills for successful invention:

1) Have a solution-centered mindset.
2) Use kaleidoscopic thinking.
3) Use full-spectrum engagement.
4) Become a master at collaboration.
5) Create "Super Value".

Despite mastery of these skills, Edison and his teams at Menlo Park recorded far more failures than successes in pursuing their technical and product goals. Were their failures actually failures? Edison had this to say on the nature of failure:

"I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward."

"Many of life's failures are men who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up."

and one of my favorites...

"Show me a thoroughly satisfied man, and I will show you a failure."

I think what is so inspiring about Edison and others like him that we get a chance to work with every day, is that the ultimate success in any inventive effort, is the learning which results. Regardless of whether the outcome is right or wrong, the highest success-metric for innovators is that something was learned which can be applied in practice to the next attempt.

If the on the last step of a 10,000 mile journey, the inventor discovers the teleporter, that makes the discovery no less important than if it was discovered on the first step. The essential "failures" of all the in-between steps, were still essential.

The real winner, of course, will be the innovation practitioner of methodologies that minimizes the mean distance of the success path.

So perhaps, semantics is a small part of the problem, but more so, it is the owner of the success metric. As innovation practitioners, we ultimately own our metrics for success and failure, regardless of what may be imposed on us by management or markets. In my own case, a failure to achieve a specific goal of an innovation task is a step to ultimate success. Failing frequently and learning (and with a methodology for improving how I apply what I learn) means succeeding more frequently and with higher impact.

Obviously I haven't succeeded in convincing you on the critical need to embrace failure for winning innovation.

I must be doing something right. ;-)

Since posting this comment to Jim, he has suggested to me that I am merely confusing empirical method with innovation. I don't agree with him, but his feedback is very constructive. Often it is the journey that is more important than its beginning and end points. That in itself is more valuable than teleporting to the destination I'm sure we'll eventually reach.

In the mean time, I'm sure we'll share many winning failures along the way.

1 comment:

Sarah Miller Caldicott said...

Jim, many thanks for your mention of Edison and his thoughts on "failure."

I am a co-author of "Innovate Like Edison" along with Michael Gelb, and am also a great grandniece of Edison's.

While researching "Innovate Like Edison" for 3 years, I came upon many creative people - just like yourself - who are constantly putting core innovation principles into practice. If there is any "failing" that we each have, it's leaving innovation out of our daily lives. Edison was consistently able to view challenges with a fresh eye - no matter whether he was on the 1st round of experimentation or the 1001st. By putting into practice Edison's Five Competencies of Innovation - which you also graciously mention in your entry - we can each constantly renew our innovation capacities, and never get stale.

Using innovation to stay in the game - and indeed, change it - is critical for us all.

Sarah Miller Caldicott