Both Failure and Innovation Push Companies Forward

Today, technology evolves at lightning speed. Computers, phones, apps, and software programs, just to name a few are improving constantly. New innovations are introduced almost daily; the grunt work behind the innovation process is rarely seen. While success is ingenuity that is quickly rewarded, the role of failure is often overlooked. In reality though, failure plays a vital and irreplaceable role in rapid innovation.

The Role of Failure

It may seem counterintuitive, but repeated failures often lead to success. Baba Shiv, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business whose research focuses on innovation in the workplace, states “If you’re trying to solve a problem there are potentially hundreds of possible pathways to take, but only a few are going to lead to the appropriate solution. And the only way to discover that is to try and fail and try again.” Innovation occurs when one learns what works from learning what does not work. Unfortunately, many entrepreneurs fear failure. In turn, they are averse to taking risks, shying away from what could be potential innovation. Even though the concept of learning from one’s mistakes is an old and known one, accepting failure within the workplace is something management constantly struggles with. Probably because the money and time – on part of the employee as well as the employer – cannot be easily quantified in terms of returns from failed attempts. However, according to Patrick Gray, author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology, “For innovation to become embedded in your organizational culture, not only must you learn to fail, but learn to do so early and often.”

Celebrating Failure

One way to inculcate a culture of accepting failure, and thereby promoting innovation is celebrating failure – much like success is celebrated. In an article by Victor Assad, Managing Partner at InnovationOne, Assad writes that certain organization are moving away from ratings, “rack and stack,” (forced ranking of employees) and the once-a-year-performance-review-here-is your-rating-and-pay-raise discussion—and all the destructive competition and hallway grumbling these practices engender. Instead, they are moving towards a continued performance feedback and subsequent recognition system, that doesn’t depend on ratings. If your innovation team is rapidly prototyping and failing, and if their failures are generating a trail of learning for the next innovation, then yes, reward them,” states Assad. It is this failure that leads to an understanding of what works and what doesn’t, ultimately turning what works into the next product or service model. Shiv corroborates this thought, stating that not only should significant successes be celebrated, but smaller ones alongside their failures should be rewarded. After all, breakthrough successes generally happen “after, or in tandem with, incremental ones.” Unfortunately, many leaders today still fear failure. A focus on exploration is hard to justify when companies need to keep their stocks up and pay their dividends. Yet, it is important to keep in mind that without embracing rapid failure and investing efforts into innovation, a competing company is bound to innovate first. As Shiv states, “If you don’t invest in exploration, someone else will, and then you’ll just be licensing or acquiring their know-how.”

Thriving in this sort of environment of rapid failure requires a different skillset from that of the traditional “rack and track” workplace. Thus, management should consider if team members are in the right roles during their failure analysis. Often, they will find that come employees are simply not cut out for innovation-oriented projects, contrary to the goals of a company that is being pushed forward by innovation itself. It is then integral to look for employees who not only survive, but also thrive in an environment of uncertainty; who see failure as an enabler to push technological and innovative borders.

Failure Analysis

Management needs to encourage fast failure, while simultaneously making sure that it doesn’t incur organizational retribution. Trusting a team’s judgement is integral to this, alongside the acceptance that they may sometimes make the wrong choice. Gray lays out a basic analysis process that allows employees to review what worked and what didn’t. As soon as an effort has failed, an objective investigation must take place. This investigation should consider which factors were misjudged, if incorrect resources were assigned, or technologies used that did not fulfill the task. All team members including junior staff that have insight to everyday activities that contributed to the failed effort should be included in this analysis. At all times is key to “regard the failure and its analysis as efforts to move forward, rather than efforts to assign blame or fight old battles.” For example, if an employee was unable to perform a certain task, a new role could be given to that employee, or a structure could be changed to ensure his future success. Ultimately, the failure should be used to learn how to improve and move forward, rather than assign unwarranted blame.

While it can sometimes be a scary thought, failure is what pushes innovation. Humans are naturally predisposed to learn from failure, and it is this learning that encourages the creation of new developments. Companies that don’t allow for failure will never keep up with those that are constantly innovating and exploring. Surely management will hit more dead ends than breakthrough innovations, but quickly assessing and reviewing failed efforts will lead to a cycle of innovation, which will push a company forward in today’s world of technological dynamism.

Photo Credit: jancamilleri Flickr via Compfight cc

This article was first published on FOW Media.


Imagine this World for a moment. Computers no longer exist. Mobile technology is a fantasy we desire, but it’s not obtainable because it only exists in science fiction movies. Medical equipment like MRIs that can detect cancer in its early stages, and the da Vinci robotic device that reduces human surgical error are only ideas on a piece of paper. The very thought is unsettling, isn’t it? We are a society so enveloped in, and by technology, that the very thought of losing these items is unconscionable. Simply, we are technology dependent with adapted lifestyles to incorporate technology into our lives without hesitation or resistance. As the demand for more and better technology increases every day, so does the demand for those individuals who long to create the next generation of technological advancements. Enter the enthusiastic technical guru also known as a nerd.

Understanding the Misunderstood

Techies are assumed to be nerds or geeks, but that’s a fictitious negative stereotype cooked up by Hollywood in an attempt to sell movies and gain sponsors for television advertising. They don’t necessarily wear pocket protectors in their shirt. Not all are introverts who prefer the company of a motherboard or programming code to the company of co-workers, though being introverted is not a societal deficit… another group stigmatized without warrant. Techies conceptualize and create at the intersection of various strengths like mathematical ability, engineering know-how, mechanical aptitude, and the curiosity of a cat. All are commendable traits. Further, they possess the inquisitive nature necessary to continue exploration for the next, best thing, or at the very least, improve functionality of the current technology.

Why Don’t We “Get” Them?

They help the World to better collaborate, communicate and be productive, but as a group, they often fall under hard times in regards to their reputation. I find it ironic that as a society so dependent on the conceptualizations and creations of these individuals, we unfairly brand them with labels perceived through our own insecurities, perhaps.

As a result, this labeling created a group of people called closet geeks. These people fear being discovered and negatively labeled by the world-at-large, in part because, they are misunderstood. Some may feel they lack strength in numbers and may not want to step out of the shadows of their comfort zone lest to be branded. Others don’t want their creative juices to be commented on only because they “get this stuff” because they are geeks or nerds. Makes me wonder if there is a bit of geek-envy going on. Could there be people who desire the unbridled creativity of the techie brain, but wish to avoid the burden of negative labeling? I guess there are people who will not step up to admit it, but given the on-going demand for what the prodigies of the label have to offer, I will say, yes there are. Really, who doesn’t want to invent or create the next best thing?

Blazing Trails

People like Steve Jobs helped to assuage some of this stigma, as does the new generation of technological entrepreneurs that are cropping up in startling numbers. Also, the overall need and demand for the next, best technological advancement touching any facet of life whether that be in a business capacity or something that affects us personally has helped some people move past the nerd labeling. But we’re not quite there yet. Societal stereotypes and gaining buy-in to these erroneous perceptions is much easier than expunging these beliefs. As with any group underserved, some techies have risen from the ashes of being stigmatized to stand united and take pride in having their geek on.

Others have serendipitously come upon discoveries in ways that were not intended, but that didn’t keep society from labeling them. Take the microwave oven for example. Its humble beginnings started when someone standing too close to a machine emitting microwaves noticed that his chocolate bar had melted in his pants pocket. Point in case, not all technological advancements came about due to a specific intention to invent. Sometimes techies stumble upon advancements that can be every bit as exciting as intentionally working towards the goal.

So I challenge everyone reading this post to think about the last time you said, “Wouldn’t be great if X, Y and Z could do this?” Or, “I wish we had an X, Y and Z because I could get my work done so much faster.” You’ve said this, haven’t you? Of course you have. News flash… we all have. Does this make us geeks? Well, that’s a self-discovery you’ll need to determine on your own. In the meantime, keep enjoying the fruits of labor from our techie friends, and remember; a world without techies is like a day without sunshine.

Photo Credit: sirromneruall Flickr via Compfight cc

More Minds: How Diverse Ideas Drive Innovation

Is it me, or has 2013 been an extraordinary year for stories from the forefront of social business, leadership and organizational culture? For every new book I finish, it seems that 3-4 more find their way to my “must read” list. There never seems to be enough time to take it all in.

Among the books I’ve had time to complete, several have made a lasting impression. One of them is Ekaterina Walter’s Think Like Zuck: Five Business Secrets of Facebook’s Improbably Brilliant CEO. Of course, we all know another book that speaks to Mark Zuckerberg’s success. What more is there to say, right? Wrong.

Diversity of Thought: Rocket Fuel For Business?

Ekaterina looks beneath the surface of Facebook’s founder in an engaging assessment of why his company is so successful. Along the way, she uncovers something that many other leadership books seem to miss — the power of diversity in innovation.

I’m not just talking about demographic diversity. Don’t get me wrong — demographic diversity is absolutely vital to innovation, and organizations still have a long way to go in that regard. But since we know that diversity is strength, it makes sense to expand the classic business understanding of workforce “diversity.” This isn’t a counterpoint to the demographic meaning, but an extension of it. A flourish. An embellishment. In the same way that jazz performers rely upon flourishes to add unique depth and character to their music, diversity has the potential to elevate the business innovation process in unique and valuable ways.

How can leaders put this insight into practice? Here are three factors to consider:

1) Yin Needs Yang

In Think Like Zuck, Walter defines five “musts” for business success: passion, purpose, people, product, partnership. It was her thought-provoking chapters on people and partnerships that made me really sit up and start thinking about diversity, and why it’s vital.

Because of Zuckerberg’s passion and smarts, Facebook did well nearly from the start. But it didn’t go into orbit until Zuckerberg picked Sheryl Sandberg as his COO. Walter writes:

She had a completely different style from his. I think their differences are what make the Zuckerberg-Sandberg duo such an extraordinary team. They complement each other very well. What Mark lacks in experience, Sheryl brings to the table in abundance. When he doesn’t feel like stepping into the limelight, she steps in for him masterfully. The difference in age, as well as gender, contributes various perspectives and capabilities.

“Yeah,” I thought, “that makes a lot of sense. So why don’t more companies get this? Isn’t it obvious?” Nailing the point, Walter quotes Leslie Bradshaw of JESS3 (a social media firm that serves world-class companies like Nike, MTV, Samsung, NASA, Twitter, ESPN and Google):

In our partnership, Jesse Thomas is the yang, and…I have enough yin to balance it out. If you look beyond our personalities, the fact that our genders are different also adds diversity. The perspective I bring as a woman is very different from what he brings as a man, and that helps balance out the way we hire, the way we treat our employees, and the way we approach strategies when we execute for clients.

“Of course!” I shouted. (Luckily, I was alone. HA). Of course diversity allows you to do more — to think more, think differently, think better! It seems self-evident, really. Yet it can be incredibly hard to convince CEOs and managers to hire or involve people who are different from them. People who do things differently, who think differently. It’s a perceived risk. And it’s wrong. “Everyone needs to be talking about this” I insisted. I was pretty fired up — but with good cause, don’t you think?

2) It’s Proven: Two Brains (and Personalities) Are Better Than One

Inspired by Walter’s book, I dove into Hutch Carpenter’s article “Diversity and Innovation: Improve the Person, Improve the Idea.” Pacing back and forth, I searched for past threads that would push my current thought process forward:

A key aspect of the next generation of innovation is the ability to tap a much larger set of minds in pursuit of valuable ideas. The historic method of innovation relied exclusively on a designated few. (“So true!”) Diversity is the key element here. That is, engaging a broad set of different perspectives to generate something better than one could do individually. Cognitive and heuristics diversity — that’s what benefits innovation. People who see things in a different way, and bring a different practice to solving problems.

“Good, good, yes,” I thought, still talking to myself. “Of course — put people together, you get more ideas. Like one plus one, right?”

Not quite. Instead, we need to think one of this kind, plus one of another kind. Carpenter cites a study by Ron Burt of The University of Chicago, finding that “people with more diverse sources of information generated consistently better ideas.”

So. It’s not just about more sources. It’s about more more diverse sources.

3) E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One?)

Then I found out something totally cool. Are you ready for this? Group diversity leads to better innovation than a genius inventor working alone (or a group working in isolation) — even when that solo entity gets input from others. Although the “lone inventor” may come up with great innovations (okay, we’re all thinking Alexander Graham Bell) it’s less likely that will happen than with communities of diverse thinkers who freely explore ideas together.

It’s true: Zuckerberg didn’t work alone. And neither did Alexander Graham Bell. Facebook and the telephone may have been visions of “lone inventors,” but those visions became world-changing products only because Zuckerberg and Bell worked well with others who thought differently from them.

As Ekaterina Walter makes abundantly clear, Mark Zuckerberg, along with many others, has created a platform more powerful for letting our voices be heard than anything since the invention of the printing press. It’s the basis for social community on a grand scale.

Social Networks and Innovation: The Bigger Business Picture

Okay, then. So the tools are there to connect our diverse dots. Why not use social networks to create a new world of work? All of us, together, representing a spectrum of talents, personalities, styles, backgrounds, brains, ideas, experience. All of us focused on contributing to a common purpose. A diverse community — an orchestra, of sorts.

We could be riffing together like jazz musicians to create organizational cultures that are more responsive, resilient, energized, engaging and innovative. Diversity playing in unison isn’t only music. It can, in fact, inform the future of work.

What are your thoughts about the power of diverse thinking in the workplace? What’s the best business book you’ve read this year? And what did it teach you?

(Editor’s Note: To discuss World of Work topics like this with others in the TalentCulture community, join our online #TChat Events every Wednesday, from 6:30-8pm ET. Everyone is welcome at events, or join our ongoing Twitter conversation anytime. Learn more…)

(Also Note: This post is adapted from, with permission.)

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