Failing to Fail

Are you doing the same things you did a year ago? Are you doing things the same WAY you did them a year ago? If so you’re bound to fail. Not that failure is bad mind you. The sooner you fail in fact, the better off you’ll be. So raise a glass with me and let’s toast all of our failures past, present and future! Ahhhh drink deep. Now wasn’t that thirst quenching? No?

Let’s face it, our culture doesn’t reward failure. We condemn it. Our condemnation is so prolific that most folks do whatever they can NOT to fail. They shudder to even speak of a failure to associates. They train themselves in fact to not even THINK about failing. It’s not an option! We walk around telling everyone who will listen to us about all of the great successful things we have accomplished in our lives. We have convinced ourselves that we must continue to succeed and more so, that we must become innovators.

Innovate or Die 
In fact innovation has become kind of a buzz-word in our society. We hear, “innovate or die.” What about “innovate AND die?” All the excitement about all things new has obscured the fact that most new ideas fail while most old ideas are still with us. With hundreds of breakfast cereals introduced every year how could it be that Cheerios and Wheaties still outsell them all? Why are Beanie Babies a faint memory yet Play-Doh is still a best seller? Evolution? Survival of the fittest? Maybe.Is there a way to combine innovation with proven methods? We’re all familiar with the old Rudyard Kipling quote: “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing the same way time after time and expecting a different result.” In this shrinking economy, it stands to reason that we need to do things differently. We all know we have to get creative, but how? How can we harness our creativity to create success rather than failure? Or better yet how can we train ourselves to endure our failures yet remain focused on the hope of a successful outcome?Not Creativity but Productivity 
The truth is that creativity is less about wild talent and more about productivity. To find a few ideas that work you need to try a lot that don’t. Successful people don’t have a higher success rate. They just do more and they do a range of DIFFERENT things. Research shows that the success of individual geniuses like Mozart, Shakespeare, Picasso, Einstein, and Darwin himself, is best understood from an evolutionary perspective, where excellence results from “a range of differences.” These famous creators generated a wider range of ideas and completed more products than their contemporaries. They also followed proven methods in order to accomplish them. They didn’t succeed at a higher rate than others. They simply did more. So they had both more successes and more failures.An Example 
A similar philosophy helps explain the success of Capital One, which has been called the most innovative credit-card company in the world. Just a few years ago, all credit cards were pretty much the same; you could have whatever you wanted as long it cost $20 per year and had an interest rate of 19.8 percent! Capital One has been the leader in offering thousands of different credit cards, with varying rates, and limits, which are targeted at people with different beliefs, hobbies, and affiliations: “They tinkered with credit lines, mileage awards, with the design of the cards, and with the color of the envelopes of their mailings. They tried different ways of retaining customers and pursuing deadbeats. Essentially they made Capital One an endless experiment.” The company tried about 45,000 experiments in the year 2000, for example. Capital One has succeeded by targeting smaller and smaller audiences for these experiments, like a “platinum MasterCard for middle-income hikers who drive Saturn automobiles.” Most of these ideas fail, but the constant experimentation with one variant after another, and constant learning, are big reasons why Capital One has over 30 million credit-card accounts.Repackaging the Old 
The other thing about innovation and creativity is that success is not usually the result of totally new ideas as it is the repackaging of old ideas in new ways, places and combinations. IDEO which is probably one of the most innovative companies in the world, has developed more than 4,000 products for firms in all kinds of industries. Their designers are constantly mixing and matching technologies to produce creative new solutions. One IDEO development group got the idea to create a “slit valve” for a bicycle water bottle out of a heart valve that was made for a medical products company. Henry David Thoreau said, “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” When you look at your product or service offerings what do you see? What do your customers see? Better yet what should they see?Challenge Accepted Practices 
Often times ideas that are born from this kind of haphazard creativity are diametrically opposed to “accepted” practices. Entrepreneurs start new companies partly because they are purported to be more innovative, free from the pressures in established firms to follow ingrained precedents. Yet entrepreneurs can fall prey to ingrained habits just like managers in big firms. Don’t be afraid to challenge accepted practices. I’m not talking about a free-for-all but rather controlled experimentation in order to cultivate innovation. Some of the greatest inventions in the world were a result of an extra component here and there pieced together. Thomas Edison said, “To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.”Here’s some advice that will help to promote creativity and innovation:

  1. Expose yourself to new ideas. Increase the variance of your available knowledge. Study other industries that face the kind of challenges you face.
  2. See old things in new ways. Don’t just get OUT of the box. Walk around it. Look at the top. Don’t be afraid to pick it up and look at the bottom.
  3. Break from the past. Stop talking about your past successes and hoping the history will repeat itself. We stand in a new place today a place we have never been and will never be again.
  4. Understand that creativity as all about productivity. Be willing to turn the focus to more rather than better at times.
  5. Embrace failures. Reward failures. Plan to fail – knowing that success in just one more failure away.
  6. Challenge accepted practices. Become a tinkerer.

Play with these ideas in your mind and experiment with a few in your company. Treat them like toys that you might buy to mess around with: Try to break them, try to take apart the pieces to see how they work, try to improve them, and mix them (or parts of them) with your other toys. I offer these ideas not as immutable truths, but as methods that have helped other companies produce beautiful and profitable mutations, and that just might help your company as well.

Posted in Corporate Culture, Growth Strategies, Improving Productivity, Management Development, Managing Change, Uncategorized.

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