Albert Einstein

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 ©

(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.  More

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