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Innovation and Invention via Permission to Fail

The essence of innovation is the process of exploring new ways of doing things, new thoughts, and experimenting.  By this very act it can be said that one needs to let go of the known, safe and secure in order to risk failure of a new approach. It is a matter of risking the proven for the sake of discovering a better solution.

The return on investment for this risk is related to improved quality of life, more efficient uses of resources, increased competitiveness, improved health conditions, more effective medical care and overall better society. The price for these improvements comes in the form of monetary expenditures and failed attempts at innovation.  Research requires rigorous experiments, designs, attempts and for every innovation there is often a long history of work.

Individual discoveries, inventions and innovations have been preceded by as many as 10,000 failed attempts.  Thomas Alva Edison, inventor of the light bulb failed many times in his experiments. Yet, he continued to try new materials for the filament inside the bulb, looking for the one that wouldn’t burn out right away.  He was rewarded with what we all take for granted today, electrical lighting.

Innovation within corporations is very similar. In order to launch an innovative product that will capture significant market share you have to try new things. Sometimes you fail, in fact most times you may fail, but the times you succeed will more than pay for the effort.

However, innovation is suffering in North America today. Don’t get me wrong, research is still being done in labs, garages and sheds but it is not financed as much as it was before by federal governments. Innovation is also suffering in the corporate world where a policy of risk aversion has dominated to such a large extent in the last few years that it is stifling.

If you are lucky enough to have a full-time corporate job the last thing you’re likely to do in this economy is to risk failure and lose that job.  Yet, that is exactly what is needed in order for our nation to remain competitive and continue to prosper.  Could you imagine what it would be like if you would not try anything new because it could fail? Imagine you’re stuck and traffic not willing to turn off the main road for fear that you may end up in a dead end? Well then, stay stuck in traffic! That is the same thing with corporations and countries in a downward spiral.

The problem is that in government bureaucracies, banks and other corporations the penalty for failure is so well executed that the employees with access to the greatest resources and therefore greatest potential for innovation are the exact ones that avoid it. Permission to fail is so rare in North America today that innovation is suffering from it.

If you want to stimulate innovation and leverage it to improve the standard of living, keep industry competitive and create jobs for everyone then you have to adopt a philosophy of permission to fail. Rather than penalizing those that try new things we should penalize those that are so fearful of failure that all they see is potential failure.

That is not to say that risk management is not important, it is very important. But, there is a difference between risk management and risk aversion.  Risk management is an essential function, necessary to identify potential risks in the form of unexpected, negative and unwanted consequences so that they can be mitigated through planning, structure, strategy and other approaches. However, when an organization tries to avoid risk it is a philosophy for failure.

Rather than have 10 risk managers for every innovation, we should have 10 innovators for every risk manager.  Otherwise, you’ll end up with an organization of accountants, lawyers, and actuary types. Yet, it seems that is exactly what we have right now and what has contributed to the liquidity and credit crunch of 2007-2008.

One thing is for sure, that the companies that are doing everything they can to cut expenses rather then redefine their business model or improve on their efficiencies will not likely be the rising stars of the future. On the other hand, the companies that come up with even one solution that is in demand and using the latest technology are the most likely to launch the next billion dollar venture.

The latest mega successes have been based on a singular ideas. For example, Twitter, Groupon andZynga started with a simple idea. Twitter stuck to one idea and one idea only because they dominated the niche they created and integrated with the strongest partners, thus solidifying their market presence. Zynga on the other hand increased the sophistication of their original online game and then expanded into new themes of the same basic concept.

Ask yourself, do you want to play it safe, hanging on to what you have for as long as you can or do you want to follow in the steps of the most successful industry leaders and inventors in history?

Give yourself permission to fail and see what happens in your life.  Encourage a philosophy of permission to fail within your organization and see how innovations can appear throughout.

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