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Innovation Failure: Inevitable Companions

How your ability to cope with fear determines your ability to succeed.

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About Tim Sutton
Vinko Bogataj doesn’t usually come to mind when we think of influential business lessons or innovation failure.  In fact, most of us don’t even know his name.  But, growing up in the U.S. in the 1980’s, I’ll never forget his image in the opening montage of ABC’s Wide World of Sports.  It was accompanied by Jim McKay’s epic narration contrasting “The Thrill of Victory” with “The Agony of Defeat”; which McKay offered as “its inevitable companion”.  The footage was from the 1970 Ski-Flying World Championship in Oberstdorf, Germany.  Unfortunately, on that infamous run, there was no actual ski flying.  There was only a horrific sequence captured on film of a helpless athlete bounding head over heels off the side of the ramp.

The good news was that Bogataj suffered only minor injuries.  The bad news, the young Slovenian became the anonymous icon for agony for a generation of American sports fans.

You might think this is an interesting sports story.  It’s actually a story about innovation.

Zero Sum Games

Jim McKay’s thrills and agonies of the sports world could equally apply to business where there are also dramatic and uncertain outcomes, although usually not in such a swift (and visual) fashion.

The reason is simple: successful businesses are driven by growth imperatives.  For example, your company may need to grow by 10% next year.  But, in the short term, populations usually don’t grow by 10%.  In the short term, incomes don’t generally rise by 10%.  In most cases, if you are going to grow by 10%, somebody else has to shrink.  If you taste the thrill of victory, somebody somewhere feels the agony of defeat.

Innovation for Growth

Innovation is a hot topic.  It’s often, and accurately, seen as an answer to the growth imperative.  Among other things, innovation allows you to enter new businesses, re-define the competitive landscape, or  differentiate your offering in the market and separate yourself from lower margin commodity products.

Bold innovation is one of those things many of us enjoy dabbling in and dreaming about.  But in practice, we may not like the realities of what it entails.  Lives get changed, markets get disrupted, our sense of security goes out the door, and people get hurt.  And, that’s what happens when we’re successful!  It’s much worse when we try bold innovation and fail (cue Wide World of Sports video).

In summary:  We need the thrill of victory (from innovation and other growth drivers).  But, we never want to experience that agony of defeat (from failing).

Paradoxically, how we cope with failure – both the fear of it and the reality of it – often determines our ability to succeed.

Dealing with Failure

The traditional approach to dealing with failure owes a debt of gratitude to Pavlov:  Failure is bad.  Do something bad, get punished.  Don’t do something bad again.

There are very real situations where this makes sense, such as managing performance within mature businesses.  But innovation is not one of them.

In innovation, punishing failure leads to a really bad thing: Failure Avoidance…with nasty side effects like paralysis, blame, and playing it too safe.  Innovation comes to a halt when employees feel it’s unsafe to work on projects with an uncertain outcome.  Companies with cultures of fear are historically low performing innovators.

There’s a temptation to solve for this by over-correcting and declaring “Failure is OK”.  This well-meaning approach is designed to allow safe space to explore and play, which is critical.  But the unintended consequence is that when failure is OK, quitting becomes an option…opening the door for an equally crippling condition: Failure Acceptance.

During the course of any significant innovation project, there will always, always, always be logical, rational, compelling reasons to quit.  Try to think of a successful innovation project that didn’t go through a dark period where everything looked like a hot mess. The companies that win don’t do so because they don’t face challenges, but rather because they have the will to persevere and adapt their way to success.

Think of it this way: when you have to solve a problem, you usually do.  When given the option to not solve a tough problem, you often don’t.  History is full of examples where groups succeed when they didn’t have the option to quit (the Spanish after Cortes burned their own boats, mission control on Apollo 13, any parent going through potty training…)

So failure avoidance leads to inaction and failure acceptance leads to a higher likelihood of failing.  What do the world’s leading innovators do?

I offer these rules, gathered over the last decade of working directly with them.

1. Understand that failure is not OK.

Show me a company where failure is truly OK and I’ll show you a company that fails a lot (or did).  Failures cost money.  Banks keep score.

2. Accept that failure is innovation’s “Inevitable Companion”.

If you play it safe, you’ll never do anything fundamentally better.  Bold leaps require commitment and investment based on imperfect or ambiguous information.  Despite your best effort to minimize risk, some percentage of the time you will miss the mark.

Apple made the Newton.  Coors launched spring water.  Life Savers made soda.  They were all bold.  They didn’t work out.

Failure is part of the game.  Of course, this creates the tension at the heart of the innovation challenge – failure is not OK, but failures are inevitable.  You can’t avoid failure or you’ll never do anything bold, and you can’t accept failure or you’ll lack perseverance.  You may not like it, but just as Jim McKay said about victory and defeat, failure and innovation are inevitable companions.

Apple, Coors, and Life Savors are all highly successful, despite losing some big bets.  They don’t win every time, but – importantly – they win more than they lose…which lets them live to innovate another day.  And that’s the key – if you learn from each loss, the next time your odds get better.

3. Understand that “wrong” is not the same as “fail”

Many companies equate “wrong” with “fail”.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, being wrong is a vital part of the innovation process.  If you pursue bold innovation, you will almost certainly be wrong some of the time (maybe a little, maybe a lot).  Designing businesses for the future is unpredictable with complex factors, many outside of our control.  Having the room to explore and play is so important, and that requires having room to be wrong.

4. Over-invest in making smarter bets

In my experience, the highest performing innovation companies invest generously in an exceptional process to gather facts, analyze risks, and create viable plans based on the information available.  This up-front investment is expensive, but it’s a wise investment if you’re serious about innovation.  And, it’s ultimately much less expensive than writing off costly failures much later in the process.

There are many good references on how to build innovation processes that work, so I won’t dwell on this. But I can’t stress enough how important it is to over-invest here.  Over invest in prototypes.  Over invest in research.  Do your homework and trust your process.  If you do this well, more times than not you will be in a position to make smart bets.

5. Think of launch commitment like a ski jump

Remember Vinko Bogataj?  Ski jumpers like Bogataj never know for sure if they’ll land on their skis each time they jump.  But once they take their butts off the seat, there is no other option but to see it through. They don’t think about the “what ifs.”  They only think about how to adjust and succeed.  High performing innovation companies (and entrepreneurs) think the same way.

I’d urge you to think of outcome commitment like a ski jump with a similar “Butt Off the Seat” moment.  You wouldn’t strap on skis and hurl yourself down an icy ramp without a serious amount of prep work, would you?  Do not commit to any innovation project lightly.  But once you do, see it through.  After your butt’s off the seat, either you’ll make choices that let you win, or you’ve already lost.

In Closing

What most of us never saw was that earlier on his fateful day, Vinko Bogataj made the jump of his life.  He flew 410 feet down a German mountain to experience the true thrill of victory.

I’d love to say “ski jumpers and innovators have a lot in common”, but I can’t do that with a straight face.  However, there is an important lesson about dealing with failure that we can learn: If you avoid failure you’ll never get in the game.  If you allow it you won’t persevere.

In the middle is a balanced, if highly uncomfortable, space dominated by the inevitable tension most athletes have come to accept where failure is bad, but losses are inevitable if you’re in the game.

For those new to innovation, it’s easy to believe that success somehow occurs overnight and without having to fight for it.  But it’s never easy, and while not every innovation project is a winner, every one could be a loser if you don’t persevere and make the right adjustments.

By the way, you’ll never guess what Bogataj said to the medical crew loading him into the ambulance 10 minutes after his fall.  “Can I jump again?”

Companies with cultures of fear are historically low performing innovators.