How Do You Feel About Failure?

One of the constants when it comes to innovation is that at its best, it’s a messy process, very experimental, and like a lot of experiments, there can be many, many failures before you see success.

It’s all part of the innovation process – if you look at many of the great innovations, you’ll see that most of them are the result of a lot of effort, resulting in many failures, before succeeding.

How many failed attempts did Thomas Edison go through to invent the light bulb? Some say over 1,000…

How you deal with failure once an innovation project has failed is key to overall programs continued success, as in its ability to generate more ideas.

Some companies watch innovation projects like a hawk, asking for an extremely high bar in specifications, building a proof of concept, business plan, specifications. Some are much readier to terminate experiments before they have had a chance to really find their legs and take off, and others leave things going on for so long without pivoting.

No matter where you fit on the spectrum, these initiatives need time to percolate.

Almost all failed initiatives fall prey to the same thing: timing. If a disruptive idea fails, it is most likely simply too early for the market to accept. However, that should not stop you from developing ideas for new products and services.

For either of these, the way you handle failures says a lot about how the next project will go.

You need to embrace failure as much as, or with even more gusto than you would embrace success. Every failure is an opportunity to adjust, revise, learn and refocus your efforts.

It’s very rare that the failure of an innovation project leads to no new information, no lessons learned.

If anything, simply showing that your organization is willing to take chances, to try something new and different, might be a great start to even better ideas.

While I’m not asking you to celebrate failure, it is an essential element in attempting anything new. Did you immediately learn how to ride a bike the first time without ever falling off? Innovation requires experimentation, and experiments, by their very nature, can sometimes end in failure – and that’s exactly what you are looking for.

Like a VC, investing in hundreds of different companies, knowing that only a small fraction will succeed, you should run hundreds of low-cost innovation initiatives, allowing each to be developed into a proof of concept, them releasing those to your internal customer base for vetting. If the experiments go well, great, then prepare your product for a real launch. If they fail, kill or pivot the idea. Look at the reasons why the project seems to have stalled. Do a full postmortem and look at lessons learned.

Additionally, if something failed as a proof-of-concept internally, it, or a variant of it, may still be a viable product in other ways. Or maybe if the product itself didn’t fly, part of it may be viable as a new future on a product which you may already have out there.

While the end game of developing a viable, profitable new line-of-business is always the best, any lessons learned along the way can be immensely valuable.