We often hear about the importance of failure when driving new ideas or new businesses. We’re given advice to Fail Early, Fail Often, and Fail Cheap. While this well-meaning advice is accurate on the whole the reality is that failure in most organizations comes with pretty heavy consequences. Within mature organizations a failed initiative can have a dramatic impact for both the individual and the long term success of organization itself.
We hear it so often that it has become cliché. Small companies are nimble and move quickly where as large companies can muster significant resources but are slow to respond to emerging threats and opportunities. In response to their admitted slow pace many big companies have focused their attention on acquisitions as a way to mitigate threats and infuse new growth opportunities into their business.
Over the last year I had the opportunity to discover a hidden innovation gem in my own back yard. A group of companies had banded together to help each other build more innovative organizations, or at least organizations that could drive innovation with a higher degree of success. Innovators International was formed in 2007 out of work commissioned by the Mayo Clinic. Today it is a member partnership of 50 of the world’s most innovative companies who are working together to build each member their own structure for driving sustained innovation.
Driving corporate innovation is far more complicated than most observers realize. During my Innovation Development days I knew that successfully launching a new initiative was a long shot. but looking back I had greatly underestimated all of the forces at play, especially the internal politics. As many organizations are mining “big data” to make better business decisions some companies are looking to mine their “innovation data” to better understand these internal and external forces that determine an initiative’s success or failure.
Seven years ago my team had just shut down the first of our two concept stores that we were running for consumer electronics retailer Best Buy. My team had spent the last two years operating these concept stores in an attempt to understand more about the opportunities in “small box” retail. During that time we had learned a ton and as a leadership team we were adamant that we needed to share what we had learned with the rest of the company.
In business we often launch new initiatives without thinking through the “what if’s?” of the project failing. Instead we get to the end of the road and the initiative didn’t turn out as planned. Rather than chalking up one big failure at the end you can break the initiative up into pieces and evaluate each stage along the way.
When executives are allowed to hide their innovation failures the entire organization suffers. False expectations are set for the entire group of executives, innovation leaders see their careers scuttled, and every other employee fails to learn from the failure. Without clear organizational expectations of documenting, sharing, and learning from our failures we will continue to see them covered up. Left to our own devices we will naturally seek to avoid our failures and move into self-preservation mode. In my work helping organizations to build strong innovation processes this is a common issue but it can be resolved.
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