This hack was written as one of the requirements to obtain the Innovation Mentor Certification at CIMp. The CIMp program is part of iVia, The Way of InnovationTM, founded by The University of Notre Dame, Whirlpool Corporation, and Beacon Health System. Learn more at http://innovationcertification.nd.edu/
“We Know No Defeat!”
Tips to assist innovation teams with adversity
By Dennis Agnew
My dad and I have been working on projects together since my youth. He taught me a motto that sticks with me to this day — “We know no defeat” is what my dad repeated to me in my youth, and still does to this day when we work on projects together. His proven talent with mechanical items, a respected business owner for 40 years, and the ability to teach me what he knew, I now know that my dad was an innovator, a leader, and a good example to follow.
Some of the things he taught me are broad lessons that can be applied in many situations. Professionally, this article will explore the parallelism between those early learnings and how innovation efforts are approached.
As I was growing up, we worked together in his welding repair shop located in an agricultural region of North Dakota. Clients, mostly farmers and ranchers, brought their broken down equipment to us to repair. Our job was to create parts from scratch, within our client’s budget, which was often part of the challenge.
There weren’t parts books or manuals for these tasks so then it became time to innovate to get the job done. Once we understood what the customer wanted for a final product and an assessment of what they were willing to spend, our first action was to give the item the first look and see what we could possibly do.
We found certain tricks and tools with experience to assist our efforts. As we delved into more difficult repairs, our attempts sometimes failed. Every time we came up short and frustrated by an attempt that failed, we would remind each other, “We know no defeat!” and move on to the next approach. Sometimes, there would be multiple failures over several attempts but ultimately many satisfying innovations to fix and create things in our shop. That attitude of not being afraid to fail has stuck with me to this day.
Twenty-five years later, I work in an innovation position with an industry leading company that thrives on innovation and developing game-changing ideas. When I started in my position of up-front innovation, I was unsure of the best ways to create and develop ideas, ultimately put those ideas into project pipelines. I was unsure how to engage everyone in the company to adopt the idea of more upfront development or perhaps, upfront failure.
At the start of an innovation event, I expect an inherent risk of not coming out of it with the next big thing. It is common for the idea owner to expect to solve a challenge after one innovation event. However, in many of the cases, it doesn’t turn out an expected result and there is obvious disappointment.
There are theories of failing cheap and early but people are not comfortable with the idea of failure in order to make progress. Many people admit defeat at the first sign of failure and give up on an idea. When engaging in innovation efforts, defeat is different than failure. Defeat is not continuing to strive for success when faced with failure. Once defeat is admitted, a mindset may be hard to change. To keep defeat out of our group, I find the following helpful.
Innovation mentors are tasked with building trust and confidence. Reassuring people that disappointment is natural and expected but to be comfortable with failure. Similar to when my football coach used to give us the “It’s not over until it’s over.” speech when we were behind at half time.
In this example, a peer group is a diverse group of people with different functions, different experience, and different locations that are relied on for assistance and encouragement. The only thing they have in common is their training and thirst for new things. This part-time group offers suggestions on tools, co-lead events, and evangelizes the innovation efforts through the organization, even in the face of failure. I have seen many of our peer group called upon for their assistance when people either have an idea or are out of ideas. The peer group members can put them on the right track of tools, contacts, or events to solve their challenge.
When the same group of people try to repeatedly solve the same problem, they tend to be blind to non-normal solutions. If the challenge can be put in front of a more diverse crowd, there is a higher likelihood non-normal solutions will abound and can be the springboard needed to jump start the solution. I once ran an event on a stagnant challenge where I purposely tried to find a few attendees that have no idea of the issue or the work previously done. One of the outside attendees came up with a solution that solved the challenge but was so complex, no one knew how we could ever implement it. The gold in that idea was not the idea, but the fact that it got the whole group thinking on a different line than they had been previously. Ultimately, it allowed them to come up with a viable, patentable solution to the challenge.
Measurements that go beyond the typical financial measurements. Financial measurements are important but these are metrics tracking iterations of solutions and the value of those iterations. By tracking these items, it is telling people how many times we’ve failed to reach an acceptable solution. I suggest showing these metrics in a format that is big, hairy, and audacious so the whole organization know not getting things solved on the first try is accepted. The permission this conveys will ensure that people are able to be forthcoming with their attempts instead of just their wins.
I’m an innovation mentor and have been part of many innovation events, small and large. Plenty of times, innovation efforts have left me feeling beat down, tired, and just plain deflated. With the help of my peers in the innovation space, the tools I’ve learned, and the thought in the back of my head, “We know no defeat!”, I keep driving forward. This fuels my excitement to bring out innovative thoughts and creative ideas from people who are struggling to find solutions on that next big concept.
And when an innovation effort takes wing, there is a feeling of accomplishment. It motivates us to move onto solving another innovation challenge. The momentum builds as we continue to challenge ourselves, by inviting failure and successes with the thoughts that we know no defeat.
I thank my dad, my first innovation mentor, for not being afraid to fail.