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The Joys of Screwing up

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

Innovation poses two enormous problems for most leaders given the way they are trained to think. First, it’s a time-based form of value. 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 in the 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 highly situational. If you don’t time the market right, anticipate the new breakthrough tech or sell it in the wrong color you’re out. And there is that other little challenge of your competitors, known and otherwise, conspiring to cut you off at the pass.

A sure sign of a leader in denial is that they collect excessive data, a passive aggressive form of resistance, instead of launching a wide array of experiments that will accelerate the failure cycle and provide real information.

Real sensemaking only occurs in 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 away day 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 hybrid breakthroughs that come from the positive tension of diverse approaches. It’s time to get with the program. You don’t have time, money or patience for this constructive conflict nonsense. 

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 and capabilities. 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 gate-opening role. These leaders are the patron saints and sugar mamas of the coffee shop. They bless the unconventional and slip them 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 highly 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 man 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 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.

Although we wish to create substantive innovation our institutional mindset and the commensurate practices we use inadvertently eliminate the deviation required to make it happen.

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 the great 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 innovation 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 in the calmness of our calendar. 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. Say “yes” more than “no.” Cross over your own boundaries. Bring your guitar or paintbrush or dancing shoes to work. Be the deviant before you cross the threshold into work. Be brave. There are those that will seek to undo you just for being free. In the words of Nobel Laureate, author and philosopher 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 many inspiring and instructive examples of what it means to make innovation an everyday, everywhere, every person capability among the finalists and winners of the MIX’s Innovating Innovation Challenge.

Jeff DeGraff is Clinical Professor of Management and Organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.

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