Doug Garnett’s Blog


Failure is NOT a Goal for Innovators

Failure is <strong>NOT</strong> a Goal for Innovators

We live in strange innovation times.

We’re told to fail fast. Apparently, failure is not an option – it’s an obligation. So you might as well start getting right to it!

We’re told to fail often. Somehow the more often we fail the more we succeed. Figure that one out.

We’re told to embrace failure. Is failure our destiny – not success? In other words, we’re going to be very unhappy if we hate failure?

And today I read in a blog post that “Much of the innovation discovery journey is a disappointing one.”

Huh. I know a lot of designers, engineers and marketers involved with innovation and they all love the journey. For them, it’s not disappointing – it’s demanding. And it’s particularly demanding because they focus on delivering big things.

These are men and women — from NASA, CalTech, and the supercomputer business to a wide range of consumer goods companies — who have the ambition that loves a big challenge. Great things only come to be when big challenges are overcome – and that’s the essential definition of a career in, and around, innovation.

And, note, for all my time in all these industries (starting on space projects at General Dynamics), no one romanced failure the way we’re told to today. Yet these are the people who put a man on the moon, created the Space Shuttle and explored the Solar System with less technology than is in a USB stick.

Thank god NASA didn’t choose to fail fast, fail often, embrace failure, and hire employees who felt the innovation discovery journey is disappointing. 

Yet, if you listen to keynote addresses or read about popular management mythologies like today’s Agile processes, you’ll hear that failure is some type of a goal. Self-declared innovation management gurus seem to be trying to create a mythological world or Orwellian dystopia where to get good things you have to seek bad things. (It’s worth noting, as Dan Lyons writes in Lab Rats, that where management books used to be written by experienced managers, they’re now written by venture capitalists.)

So it’s time to refocus. What IS the truth about innovation and failure?

Failure is easy, success is hard. Focusing so much on failure takes the obligation to greatness out of the hands of companies and management. It sets a goal which is easy to meet — just don’t do your job well.

More seriously, the shallow thinking behind the failure focus ignores the fact that risk CAN BE managed and mitigated. It ignores that with hard work and savvy thinking the chances of success become vastly better. Yet these management gurus hand out free passes to skip putting in the hard work of success and to skip important things like market research or mastering the problem to be solved. As Dan Lyons also observes, though, employees don’t get job security as a result – they still live with constant low levels of stress and fear from dysfunctional management. (I recommend reading his book.)

The goal of innovation is success. But what is success from innovation? Sometimes you can’t determine it in advance. At Bell Labs scientists worked with tremendous freedom to explore in order to discover. What would they discover? From what I read it couldn’t be planned and that led to some tremendous surprises – like the discovery of semiconductor technology.

Truth is, sometimes success is discovering a better end result than you expected as you proceed with your project. Sometimes you end up in a different area altogether – having learned the key thing for a different innovation yet one that drives big profits. (Thanks to Warren Whitlock for some of the discussion about the vagaries of the term “success”.)

Defining success in advance is so tough with innovation that Stephen Shapiro has written a book called “Goal Free Living”. In my own planning, I tend to create a broad senses of where I want to end up rather than highly specific goals. The innovation search tends to disrespect highly specific goals yet often delivers something better instead if you are open to true discovery.

Regardless, you don’t have to fail to succeed – it doesn’t even help you succeed to fail first. Sometimes you attempt to succeed yet end up falling short and sometimes you might even fail. That’s the risk involved with innovation.

Projects rarely arrive at failure – the truth is far more subtle. Language is important. And the more careful we are with language, the more we’ll have innovation contribute powerfully to our companies.

So, let’s get rid of the idea that the result of innovation is success or failure. Those innovations which fail to deliver the ROI a CEO wants are rarely failures – most projects simply underperform if there’s smart work behind them. Here’s a blog post I wrote about how Lithium Ion batteries in power tools are just such a case. Our language must become far more sophisticated than this lazy duality.

Perhaps, though, we’re struggling because the vast portion of the innovation language is being defined in Silicon Valley where there’s a warped myth that amateurs are the ones who do great things. Amateurs can be forgiven for relying on lazy duality language – but not for telling us failure is success.

Maybe a true amateur succeeds every now and then in Silicon Valley but I doubt it. Great innovation almost always comes primarily from people who have mastered the challenge of creating dynamic, breakthrough products – people like Steve Jobs and companies like Kreg Tools or Festool.

Succeeding with innovation requires smart risk management. Risk management requires that we (a) decide which projects have the right potentials for success then (b) set those projects up so risk of failure is a minimum. Unfortunately, as Rick Nason observes in his excellent book on risk management, most companies see risk management as the Department of No.

What risk management can do for you, without creating eternal delays that miss the market window, is help projects become set up with the highest chance of success. How? By identifying the key risks and looking for smart ways to reduce the potential harm they can do. By ensuring the right resources are allocated to important projects. By working with the projects to help them succeed.

Nason further observes, “Risk is fundamentally caused by people and complexity.” For example, the risk isn’t primarily that technology fails – but that the people implementing it make poor decision either in deciding the project is feasible or in the specifics of implementing the technology. Or the people on the project choose to treat innovation as a classically reducible engineering problem even though innovation can only succeed by respecting the complexity that makes it impossible to reduce these problems simply.

“Fail fast” probably does more harm than good. The fail fast theory is a lovely one for those venture capitalists who see investment as “rolling the dice”. If your livelihood depends on rolling dice, who wouldn’t want to roll the dice quickly?

What VC’s don’t respect is is that powerful success takes time and takes focus. That doesn’t mean a crash project on innovation may not be smart (read “The Soul of a New Machine” for one example). Note, though, that the computer featured in this Pulitzer winning book didn’t fail – there is no inherent need to “fail fast”.

In fact, I think the “fail fast” phrase is missing it’s second half:  “Fail fast to always fail.”

What is the innovator’s job, then? Innovation involves risk but so does living life. That said, those working to create innovative products, services, and business must respect that they are taking on a higher level of risk than most people.

That doesn’t mean throwing out our arms to embrace failure. It means we need to take our jobs seriously and respect the risk. It also means that sometimes we’ll have to live with a project that failed. But no matter what we do, we shouldn’t ever seek failure out.

©2018 – Doug Garnett – All Rights Reserved

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