Oh, the joys of screwing up

March 18, 2013: 11:46 AM ET

People (and companies) learn best by accelerating the failure cycle, not by avoiding it.

By Jeff DeGraff

Banana Peel Next To Man On Ground --- Image by © Images.com/Corbis

(TheMIX) -- Innovation poses two problems for most leaders, given the way they are trained to think. First, its value diminishes over time; it goes sour, like milk. This year's "must-have" gadget will end up in a landfill next Christmas or at least be overwritten by version 2.0.

Second, innovation only pays off in a future for which you presently have no data. As Kierkegaard put it "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards."

So, you can't answer the two questions that will determine the value of your clever initiative: How much? How fast? The speed and magnitude of an innovation is situational. If you don't time the market right, anticipate the new breakthrough tech, or if you sell your product in the wrong color, you're out. And there is that other little challenge of having competitors, known and otherwise, conspiring to cut you off at the pass.

A leader who is in denial about this uncertainty might collect excessive data, a passive aggressive form of resistance, instead of launching a wide array of experiments that will accelerate the path to failure and provide real information.

Leaders ought to focus on the highly ambiguous situations where uncertainty not only elicits new ideas but provokes new ways of thinking. Artists call this sensation defamiliarization -- meaning seeing common things in uncommon ways.

A company's culture, competencies, and practices will largely determine the vision, values, goals and even processes it pursues. Sure, your team did that assessment of personality types at your last leadership retreat but, when push comes to shove, everyone needs to do things the right way: your way, your boss' way, your client's way. Forget the breakthroughs that come from the tension of accepting diverse approaches to solve problems. It's time to get with the program. You don't have time, money, or patience for this constructive conflict nonsense. 

GE (GE) Chief Marketing Officer Beth Comstock has argued that successful innovation requires an optimistic and open state of mind. Freedom is the foundation for creating an innovative culture. You need to create an environment where independent thinking and autonomy are encouraged. This requires changing your mind about where your company begins and ends and what it really can do and what it can't. Such a shift requires that leaders with power and political capital move from a gate-keeping to a gate-opening role. These leaders are the patron saints and sugar mamas of the coffee shop. They bless the unconventional and slip the folks behind the counter a little spending money when in need.

Consider how the improbable case of Albert Einstein is as much a story of the curious and broad mind of eminent University of Berlin Professor of Physics Max Planck as it is of the man synonymous with creative genius. At a time when Einstein couldn't secure a high school teaching position and worked as a patent clerk in provincial Switzerland, Planck recognized the brilliance of his Special Theory of Relativity paper and published it in the most prestigious physics journal of the day, Annalen der Physik. Without Planck, it's doubtful that we would have ever heard of Einstein. Contrary to our romantic notions of the lone genius or misunderstood maverick, Einstein was highly educated and capable, but offbeat in his innovative approach to both his life and the community of scholars. It took the vision and courage of the older and more established Planck to make way for a completely new approach to an intractable problem. In more than one case, Einstein's solutions usurped those established by Planck. Would you be willing to promote the very ideas that would unseat you?

In a real sense, Einstein did the creative work that the entirety of the academic community couldn't because he was not fully indoctrinated in their dominant logic. He never drank the Kool-Aid. The same could be said for the off-beat innovators of our time, like Narayana Murthy of Infosys (INFY) or Dean Kamen of Segway, who were successful because they didn't follow convention. The more you try to accommodate these people inside your organization, the more likely they will succumb to corporate think. This is why incubators are referred to in the trade as incinerators. They burn up money, ideas, and creative people.

Our ability to "think different" may be as much a result of what we stop doing as what we start. Learning to do anything new requires sufficient time to acquire the capability. Learn to play an instrument or speak a foreign language and the point becomes clear. All learning is developmental regardless of age. The point is that real innovation requires that we get to a destination we have never been to before and by a new route. We make it up as we go along. Otherwise it's just another lap around the planning circuit.

We learn by accelerating the failure cycle, not by avoiding it. As American philosopher John Dewey put it, "The self is not something ready-made, but something in continuous formation through choice of action." This requires that we launch our own experiments with the aim of gaining meaningful experiences. We need to open ourselves up to new things. But our creativity does not happen on cue or within the confines of our schedule. It seldom happens on demand. Instead, we find our ingenuity, imagination, and growth in the muddle and maelstrom of our circumstances.

Vary your days. Feed your head. Pay attention to what is getting energy and what is losing it. Cross over your own boundaries. Be the deviant before you cross the threshold into work. There are those that will seek to undo you just for being free. To combat the naysayers, take some advice from Albert Camus: "The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion."

You can find examples of what it means to make innovation an everyday capability among the finalists and winners of the MIX's Innovating Innovation Challenge.

Jeff DeGraff is a professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.

Join the Conversation
About This Author
The MIX
The MIX

The Management Innovation eXchange is a site dedicated to sparking conversation and progress around the most critical challenges that managers face today: How to create organizations that are fit for the future -- and fit for human beings. The MIX seeks to enlist as many in-the-trenches innovators, progressive leaders, and adventuresome thinkers as possible in pursuit of that goal. Users can submit, rate, and build on each others' ideas -- creating an open platform for management innovation. The MIX is supported by several leading institutions, including McKinsey & Co., Dell, HCL, Red Hat, London Business School, HSM, and the Human Capital Institute.

Email The MIX
Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by WordPress.com VIP.