Innovate to Thrive – No Risk …No Innovation

Part two in a series of articles by Robert Brands discusses the need and importance of taking risks to achieve successful innovations. Since the high failure rate, organizations pursuing the practice of Innovation must have a tolerance for failure. The material is based on 25 years of hands on experience in the innovation space and the recently published book “Robert's Rules of innovation”.

All Star Joe Mauer of the Minnesota Twins led Major League Baseball in 2009 with a lofty batting average of .365. In second place is the amazing Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners, batting .352. This means that Mauer fails to hit 62.7 percent of the time. Ichiro fails 64 percent of the time. But failure is not what they‘re thinking about when they‘re up at the plate. They have a plan to execute and they work out a quality at-bat.

Similarly, there is a success ratio when it comes to Innovation. One recent example: a study on the grocery business (www.allbusiness.com) pegs the success rate for new product entries at 1:100. One percent. A company‘s appetite for failure during difficult financial times can shrivel with the realization that Innovation means ―outcome uncertainty.

It took Thomas Edison 6000 tries to perfect and get to the incandescent light bulb.

Not every idea can, or will, be a winner. Not every Eureka! moment pans out. Consequently, innovation – and the budgets to support it – become big, fat, juicy targets. Champions of organizational Innovation must have, and encourage, a tolerance for failure and enthusiasm for risk taking.

Without risk, there can be no Innovation. In a tough economic environment, the willingness to take risk – given the cost of failure – can wither. But one can‘t pull the plug on an idea too soon.

Fear of failure can kill Innovation.

An essential part of this dialogue is the element of trust. In my experience, teams perform best when they trust that failure will not result in punitive measures. Fear of failure can kill Innovation. Your team will be afraid to act, decide, move forward and do the work it‘s capable of. Stasis.

Remember, too, that new ideas and technologies take time to gestate in the marketplace and take root with end-users. Hybrid cars? How would they have fared in the late 1990s, when energy was relatively cheap and SUVs owned the roads of America?

And, all the while, management‘s hair turns grey and fingers twitch, waiting to pull the plug on this latest creation. But I recall the experience I had with foaming hand soap, which we introduced in 2000 and was fairly flat in the marketplace for more than three years until several key customers really got the concept and pushed it hard, into a variety of industry sub-segments.

Experimentation + Risk (+ Failure) = Improved Environment for Innovation



Thomas Alva Edison was a failure. It has been said that he “went back to the drawing board” more than 6,000 times before finding the right plant to produce a carbonized filament for his incandescent light bulb.

Six thousand times. Do you have that kind of innovative stamina?

It’s been said that Risk + Experimentation (+ Failure) = Improved Environment for Innovation. Put another way, Innovation = Creativity x Risk Taking.

Innovation is an experiment of sorts. It requires a culture of risk, opportunity and challenge. Moreover, for an organization to benefit from innovation, leaders and team members alike must welcome – and grow from – failure.

Rather than view failure as inherently bad, successful innovation requires that executives and teams commit to learning from each experiment gone bad — and incorporate those teachings into the next endeavor.

The successes and failures borne of innovation experimentation perpetuate innovation. When strategies are emerging, innovators test their hypotheses and gather information to continue forward with their ideas. Whether the innovation is a consumer product, a software application, or an internal process for an existing business enterprise or workflow strategy, the question remains: How will the idea resonate with the target audience or user? What costs are reasonable? Can the audience (consumers, manufacturers, employees) be convinced to shift well-established habits to embrace The New?

Without risk, there can be no reward.

Because of a high failure rate, organizations pursuing the practice of Innovation must have a tolerance for failure. Not every idea will win. But each failure must be perceived as valuable in the trial-and-error process as a team seeks improvement. Tolerance for failure must be encouraged, as well as enthusiasm for risk-taking. Without risk, there can be no reward.

Here are some simple steps for encouraging initiative and Innovation:


  1. Profiles in Risk: Clearly communicate the risk profile you are asking your people to adopt and state why it is important to the organization’s success.
  2. Failure Management: Never allow an unsuccessful risk to hamper a team member’s opportunities and advancement.
  3. Key Learnings Process: Establish a formalized, non-accusatory process for harvesting key learnings from unsuccessful risks.  Distribute these lessons-learned.

Most of all, avoid letting a failed concept kill your team’s motivation. Every idea should be given positive acknowledgment, every failure should be studied for “what went wrong,” and every success should receive appropriate reward. By providing your team with a culture of Innovation, their risk-taking abilities will improve. And, as was the case with Mr. Edison, they eventually will see the light borne from their successful innovations

By Robert F. Brands

About the Author

Robert F. Brands is President and founder of Brands & Company, LLC. Having gained hands-on experience in bringing innovation to market, creating and improving the necessary product development processes and needed culture, he delivered and exceeded to bring “at least one new product per year to market” resulting in double digit profitable growth and shareholder value.

 

Robert is the founder of Innovation Coach.com, he is an innovation speaker and the author of “Robert’s Rules of Innovation, a 10-Step Program for Corporate Survival” with Martin Kleinman published March, 2010 by Wiley. The book contains assessment tools, tips, in depth chapters on the importance of Intellectual Property, working with multinational teams and more. For more information on Inspire & Initiate or any of the other imperatives please visit RobertsRules ofInnovation.com.

  • http://www.pinkcat.dk Steen Koldsø

    Thanks Robert for great a article, I agree with you.
    When I worked for Nokia, until to 2006, I experienced a very innovative culture, where: Experimentation = fail fast – learn quickly, risk taking and risk management and lesson learnt was an integrated part of the company culture. Great place to work.

  • Heinz Essmann

    A very interesting article Robert – thank you!

    Can I offer an addition to your formula for innovation:

    Innovation = Creativity x Risk Taking x Implementation

    In the words of Edison, “Genius [Innovation] is 1% imagination and 99% perspiration”. While the exact ratio is not important, the need to drive creativity and risk taking home is vitally important.

    Sincere apologies if I have “jumped the gun” in your series of articles.

  • http://www.robertsrulesofinnovation.com Robert Brands

    Absolutely and valid addition; It is all about execution and follow through. Look for clear attainable and realistic goal like “One new product per year” , Leading and Lagging indicators to make it happen…

  • henry

    I quit my job because my boss had an unhealthy fear of innovation. He saw innovation as risk not worth taking. He preferred the traditional way of business. Anytime i suggested something trying something new he always had a tale of woe to dampen my spirit. thanks Robert.

  • http://www.robertsrulesofinnovation.com Robert Brands

    Dont give up…persistence pays
    All great Innovators have this as their legacy look at Steve Jobs, Edison, you name it

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