The innovative mind: why you should prepare your team for failure

There are a bunch of definitions out there of what ‘innovation’ is, but at its highest level we can boil it down to something like ‘the act or process of coming up with something new: something that hasn’t previously been done or thought about’.

And whether that something new is a new product or solution that tackles an old problem, at some point creativity plays a big part in its production. In other words: innovation is a product of creativity. We’ve talked about what creativity is in a previous post.

But there’s another important ingredient that we must be aware of when it comes to innovation, and that’s the concept of failure. The link between failure and innovation isn’t a new concept. Famous innovators such as Thomas Edison, the inventor of the lightbulb (which, funnily enough, is now used as a symbol for ideas and creativity) are as much famed for their failures as for their successes in innovation.

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The Innovation Process

Cut to today’s discussions around innovation and you’ll notice the message of feeling frustration before getting results is still being preached. Victor Poirier (a professor at the institute of Advanced Discovery and Innovation at the University of Florida) published a 2017 paper on the characteristics of innovation and how to cultivate them, as well as the innovation process.

He breaks the process down into five main steps:

  1. Inspiration

  2. Creativity

  3. Motivation

  4. Entrepreneurship

  5. Innovation

In the paper, Poirier also kind of admits that some people are blessed with an innovative brain from birth, but goes on to suggest that all of us have elements of it within us and we just need to ‘activate’ them.

Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Accordingly, a genius is often merely a talented person who has done all of his or her homework.
– Thomas A. Edison

What human characteristics are necessary for innovation?

Among the characteristics that Poirier lists in the paper are things like constantly questioning ‘the way things have always been’, the willingness to take risks and not being afraid to take a risk. The latter is one that we feel maybe doesn’t get spoken about enough in the context of creative projects. We often talk a lot about what success looks like, but do we talk enough about what failure looks like and how to use it to reach success?

For example, when people mention how Edison invented the lightbulb, the story often leaves out the part about the many failed attempts that came before the ‘Eureka!’ moment. Why is that? We believe people are afraid of failure for many reasons, one of the main ones being that failure reflects badly on us as professionals and as people. But it’s simply a matter of reframing the way we look at the innovation process.

You can’t really fail with an experiment

A lot of innovation is about experimentation: it’s about asking a bunch of questions and testing several hypotheses until you get an answer that satisfies you and your end goal. And if we look at every ‘experiment’ as a chance to learn something new, suddenly our motivation (see Step 3. of the innovation process above!) is both different and stronger.

Nine out of ten startup ventures will fail* but does that stop venture capitalists from investing in the startup number eleven? No, sir! And when it comes to forming those hypotheses and asking those questions, our Triggers Innovation Deck will do a lot of that work for you 😉.

*We may have guessed this ‘fact’ to make a point, but the concept remains the same!

Accept failure from the beginning

When we fear failure, we limit our chances of success. Fear of failure builds a fence around our ambitions and gives us less space to be creative. But if we start the process of innovation with the assumption that we’re going to fail along the way, it gives us a freedom to keep prototyping, keep testing, and keep getting the feedback necessary to move closer to that final, innovative solution.

That final part (about feedback) is crucial. Even if the feedback is negative, it tells us something about what we need to work on when we go back to the drawing board.

Conclusion

There is almost never success without failure. So when we are trying to help our teams develop an innovative mind, failure should be part of the conversation. We simply need to look at each effort or sprint as an experiment: a chance to ask questions, find the answers to those questions and use the acquired knowledge to find a better solution. After that, it’s a question of repeating that until we get to the solution.

In a future post, we’ll talk more about some specific things we can do as team leaders to help our teams be more prepared for innovation.