Sunday, 19 October 2014

If we want innovation we may need to re-think on the right to fail

'Failure' by Beat K√ľng
under a CC license
Success and failure are two terms that we come to meet very early in life. The paradox is that, while we learn and develop through failure, ultimately reaching success, later in life, we tend to look down on those who do not succeed.

Certainly, there must be an evolution element involved in that attitude of ours. Clearly, success is the desirable outcome. When it comes to making breakthroughs, though, regardless of whether those are disruptive innovations or smaller forward-leap ideas, trial-and-error or - in plain english - failure is part of the process. Our stance on somebody 's failure normally includes elements of constructive or not-so-much criticism and sympathy at ratios that vary according to our ties with the individual in question and the impact of the individual 's failure.

At any rate, despite the fact we know that failure is part of life, which may even lead to success, we often 'forget' that people have the 'right to fail', at least to some extent.

Interestingly, our legal and business norms seem better prepared to handle failure than our social instincts. Entrepreneurs can go bankrupt, for instance, and start over after a while. First offenders get a 'lighter' treatment in the justice system. In each case, of course, the impact of failure on the individual does vary - and there is always some negative impact and maybe even some longer lasting effects.

So the question is, how do we shape things in such a way that the fear of failure does not hinder innovation, including innovative thinking, innovative design, innovative practices, etc., while the impact of a likely failure is contained reasonably well?

I'm not sure I have the answer to that. But there are things, both related to the effort towards success and to the (potential) failure, most of there already tested and proved, that may help:
  • Make advice easily available to innovators. That may be through free research or business development services, through subsidies available for consultants, etc.
  • Develop a network of mentors available to support innovators. Having a mentor solves the problems of 'what is the right question to ask a consultant?' and 'how to I prioritise tasks?'. Such schemes - to my knowledge - have been limited to mostly within academic and large corporation environments. Maybe it worth considering how to deploy such scheme to emerging innovative entrepreneurs.
  • Encourage step-wise development. Such steps would limit the cost of failure at each step with the added bonus of better awareness of all opportunities as the 'product' matures.
  • Encourage pooling of resources and diversify investment. Now that is a tricky one. It can apply to both enterprises and investors, including financial institutions. The former may not have the capacity to adopt such approach but the latter, most likely, have something like that already in place. The problem is how to correctly estimate the risk for each investment, so as to allocate reasonable funds in a reasonable way. There, both underestimating the risk and overestimating it leads to serious problems for the innovation system.
  • Provide guidance after (potential) failure. Yes, seriously. Failure doesn't always have to be an abrupt halt but innovators should have the means to access what went wrong and if/ how it can be fixed. And yes, the next step is to provide resources after (potential) failure, should things prove to be fixable.
  • Promote success stories.
  • Encourage the innovative thinking of students within the education system. That should be a no-brainer, yet in practice we choose to be on the conservative side. There many ways to do that; gamification of the challenge could be one of the alternatives. To be fair, however, that is no easy task - especially if the education system runs under limited resources. In any case, it should include advice on how to deal with failure at the factual and - possibly - at the emotional level.
The list, above, is only indicative. The bad thing is that they all come at a cost and that the potential benefit is linked to the (perhaps risky) innovation at the end of the chain. The good thing is that such measures can be applied within different environments and at suitable intensities, minimising risk while still being able to reach (and study) results.

And, for the end, a couple of relevant TED talks. As usual, inspiring to watch :)

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