“Failure is the discipline through which we advance.” — William Ellery Channing, 19th century American poet
One of the more dangerous myths about entrepreneurship is that we have to be a risk taker to be successful. Speculators, traders, and deal making entrepreneurs might thrive on the risks and rush of “doing deals.” But entrepreneurs building long-term businesses aren’t risky gamblers. Successful entrepreneurs and innovation leaders are obsessed with developing new products, services, management systems, human resource approaches, markets, and businesses that will give them a big competitive edge.
But they refuse to bet their company on a few big all-or-nothing projects. Managers who take that approach are either innovation ignorant (they don’t understand the basics of successful innovation) or irresponsible. The business graveyard is full of managers who invested very heavily in “sure fire” innovations that flopped.
Opportunities for innovation leadership always look bigger going than coming. Using the Law of Averages, innovation leaders nurture many experiments, pilots, trials, tests, and the like at very early stages to screen out those few promising innovations they will eventually direct into their managerial mainstream. They cheat. By the time an innovation is ready for full-scale investment, all the rich learning that came through exploration and experimenting substantially reduces the risk (and some of the development work is already underway).
Successful experimentation means we need to kiss a lot of frogs to find that prince. As we do, we learn. So we might begin recognizing royal froggy behavior or see the faint marks on their heads left by little crowns. That may help reduce the number of frogs we have to kiss, but we still have to keep looking.
In his article “Building a Learning Organization,” Harvard Business School professor, David Garvin, writes, “Experimentation involves the systematic searching for and testing of new knowledge . . . A study of more than 150 new products concluded that ‘the knowledge gained from failures (is) often instrumental in achieving subsequent successes.’ …In the simplest terms, failure is the ultimate teacher.”
When asked why he wasn’t getting results with his countless tries to successfully develop the light bulb, Thomas Edison replied, “Results? Why, man, I’ve gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won’t work.”
Charles Kettering was one of the greatest inventors of the early 20th century. When at NCR, he developed the first electric cash register. In 1909, he founded Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (Delco) where he invented the electric starter and other automotive electrical equipment and systems.
Kettering once said, “An inventor is simply a person who doesn’t take his education too seriously. You see, from the time a person is six years old until he graduates from college, he has to take three or four examinations a year. If he flunks once, he’s out. But an inventor is almost always failing. He tries and fails, maybe a thousand times. If he succeeds once, he’s in. Those two things are diametrically opposite. We often say that the biggest job we have is to teach a newly hired employee how to fail intelligently. We have to train him to experiment over and over and to keep on trying and failing until he learns what will work.”