My friend, Dave, likes to play poker. He really enjoys playing in
poker tournaments. Of course the fact that he regularly wins may
help. To him, poker is not a game of chance. He has studied and
learned the disciplines and techniques. He practices his game, and he
plays to win. In Dave’s mind, poker is not a losing game; it is not a
negative expectation game like black jack. No, poker is about winning.
So, why do I bring the tale of Dave and his winning ways at poker?
I have been on Twitter for almost two months now where I follow tweets
on innovation. Over the past few weeks, I have noticed that every few
days there is a big flurry of tweets proclaiming that innovation is all
about failure. Some tweets even state that in order to succeed at
innovation, you need to fail more.
To put it delicately, such talk about innovation is pure twaddle.
Yes, I know there are many of you who will violently disagree, but let
me explain why it is fundamentally import to the health of your
innovation programs that you not embrace the mind numbing mantra
innovation of hallowing failure.
If innovation isn’t about failure, what is it about? Of course, if
you read this blog regularly, you already know the answer. Innovation
is about winning! That doesn’t mean that every innovation initiative
will succeed. Some will fail. However, the goal is to win. To create
new and unique value that you can deliver to customers and thereby
build value for your enterprise. Admit it; nobody says, “Hey, let’s
toss forty million down the toilet on this dopey idea!” No, people
embark on the journey of innovation because they believe that their
concept provides a map to success.
That is why the very language of failure defeats innovation before
it gets started. C-level executives responsible for company
performance don’t want to hear about failure. Failure means lost
investment and that translates to a drag on corporate value. If you
convince your CEO to embrace failure to succeed at innovation, he is
still expecting to win at the innovation game. If he doesn’t see that
you know how to win, his support will be very short lived.
Employees won’t want to hear they are being assigned to an
innovation team if they believe that team will fail. As much as you
tell them otherwise they feel the taint of failure will stick to them
and hurt their future. Even the most ardent innovation workers can
find their resolve tested if they never taste the fruits of success.
As you can see, this is not merely an argument of semantics. The
language of failure can very quickly turn into a self-fulfilling
prophesy as your innovation programs have their funding withdrawn or
see key employees desert the mission in favor of jobs where they can
So what about examples like Edison? Didn’t he fail 10,000 times? Not if you ask Edison.
Iteration is a valuable tool for empirical science and innovation.
Exploration is just that. The process of finding success may require
validation of various hypotheses and alternatives. If you are truly in
uncharted waters trying to deliver on a very bleeding edge concept, you
won’t stick it out if you personally feel that every pothole on the way
is a failure. You must believe you can succeed and that each iteration
is a valuable data point or you won’t make it to the finish line.
Some people run to the refuge of the myth of failure because they
are still slogging through the mire of accidental innovation models.
For these people, innovation means waiting until you stumble upon a
winning idea. Lacking the skills to discriminate, they try and run
with any idea that strikes a chord. It’s no wonder that so many of
these initiatives are doomed before they get off the ground. But,
there is a better way. The first step to rising out or the swamp of
accidental innovation is recognizing you are there and not accepting a
poor success ratio as simply being the ante to play the game.
The disciplines of repeatable, successful innovation can be
learned. Structured innovation may sound like an oxymoron, but it’s a
very powerful concept. In the hands of skilled practitioners,
sustainable innovation practices are the difference between mucking
about in the wasteland of accidental innovation transforming your
enterprise to a high performance innovation organization.
Don’t believe that there are skills that can make a difference in
innovation? That brings me back to my friend, Dave. He has mastered
the skills of a game that most of us think of as a game of chance. In
the words of Henri Junttila, “Poker
isn’t all luck; if you play for a month or two (depending on how much
you play) you should come out ahead about 95%+ of the time.” Even the game of black jack can have its dynamic altered with knowledge and skill. If you don’t believe it, go watch the movie “21”.
The innovation game is also one that can be bent to your will.
Innovation skills in how to look at markets and opportunity spaces, how
to predict disruptive opportunity cycles, how to find the optimal
execution plan to move from idea to product can all be learned and
integrated into you product development programs.
Language is a powerful medium. It provides us with the pallet we
use to express our most important thoughts, giving them shape, form,
and meaning. Each time we use language we create mental images for our
listeners—some intended, some not. It is important to understand the
destructive impact the language of failure has on innovation.
Master the skills to play at the innovation table, and you will not
be worrying about how to defend your failures. You will be enjoying
the benefits of innovation as a value driving core competence. You
will pass your competitors as they drop their resources into the one
armed bandit of accidental innovation reliance because you are
innovating to win.