The Innovation F-word

Fail fast. Fail cheap. Fail early. Go out to fail. We have all heard these words numerous times in connection to innovation and how to create radical innovation, the ultimate dream for all of us involved in the field. In fact the f-word is used so frequently in connection to innovation that it is about to become yet another meaningless slogan. Why is failure so hard? In this blog post Susanna Bill takes failure out of slogans and into a human orientated perspective.

What is failure? On a general level it is about missing an expected target or getting a different result compared to what was planned. Innovation per definition is creating something new, i.e not previously existed. The newer the more break through. So if you have an expectation of what the result ought to be, the level of newness cannot be that high. In other words, if you are on to something really new, how can you even know if there is a failure or success since predicting the result is not feasible?

The American professor Henry Petroski once said that success is a great inspirer but a lowsy teacher, the reason being that when you succeed you never know how close to failing you actually are, which in some cases can have devastating consequences. Imagine if Titanic had made it for example, with all its weaknesses leading the way for other ship manufacturers to “improve” its construction, hence putting many more passengers at risk. Instead the shipping industry improved from the Titanic disaster (life boats for all passengers, radar, etc.). For an organization however, failing is tough because it means that it must reinvent itself which is very challenging. Members of organizations use disproportionate amounts of time trying to cover up for small mistakes instead of airing them in an attempt to find and fix the root causes and learn something in the process. Why is this? Why is it that despite knowing that failure is needed to move forward and learn we fear it so deeply?

I think the answer is connected to the fact that we as human beings want to belong and connect. We want to be part of the group and most of us find it very uncomfortable to stick out and take risks, to question that which most other members of the group think is true or given, because when doing so we put our sense of belonging at stake. Risk + Fail = Shame, and to feel shame is to feel disconnected or unworthy of being part of the group. If we want innovation to happen, we must minimize shame.

The American researcher Brené Brown researched shame and had some very interesting findings. The only difference between persons with a strong sense of belonging and connection and those who do not feel worthy of belonging was that the former believe that they are worthy of belonging and connecting. That’s it. This is manifested in those persons who feel that they are worthy of belonging and connecting, who live more whole-heartedly and expose themselves fully including weaknesses and imperfections. They let go of who they think they should be and embrace who they are – in their mind there is no other way. In other words, living whole-heartedly and embracing the vulnerability created when exposing your weaknesses and fears creates a sense of being worthy of belonging and is the birth place for risk taking, creativity and innovation.

Persons who do not feel worthy become emotionally numb and eventually struggle to find meaning in what they do. Instead they feel bad and vulnerable and in order to get rid of the pain and discomfort they blame others, creating a vicious cycle.

In his book Five dDsfunctions of a Team Patrick Lencioni talks about trust as the foundation for all types of demanding work. When there is no trust, team members do not dare make themselves vulnerable to each other, creating an environment that lacks debate and conflict, two of the ingredients needed for creating new thoughts, new ideas end eventually innovation. The result is that team members use their energy trying to protect themselves and optimize their own gain rather than focusing the energy on the challenges at hand.

He distinguishes between vulnerability based trust, i.e creating an environment where team members feel safe and can be sure that their weaknesses will not be used against them and the type of trust built upon expectations of behavior. The former sets the foundation of demanding innovation work the latter having little impact upon innovation. What team members need to do is be very comfortable and open with their vulnerabilities, and by taking an open attitude, creating the sense of authenticity which result in trust.

To summarize: despite knowing that taking risks and failing are key for innovation we are reluctant to do so. Failure results in shame and a feeling of not being worthy of belonging to the group. People with a strong sense of belonging feel that they are worth belonging and connecting and become authentic since they expose their entire self including weaknesses and vulnerabilities. The kind of trust teams need to manage demanding challenges is vulnerability based so team members feel that they are worthy of belonging. The way to go is to be open and honest about your own vulnerabilities. Expose your full self. It will encourage peers, team member and co-workers to do the same.

Failure is a very complex and unpleasant experience. It upsets me when scholars and professionals use it in a slogan-like and thoughtless way without putting it into context. Fail fast, fail early, fail cheap. Easy to say, but very hard to do.

I was inspired by the following when writing this blog:

By Susanna Bill

About the author


Susanna is the former Head of Innovation at Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications. In 2009 she founded Sustenance AB and since then shares her time between advising corporate leaders in how to make innovation happen by strengthening the innovation capabilities of their organizations, and pursuing a PhD at the department of Design Sciences at Lund University, focusing on the social processes that are beneficial for the innovation capabilities of self organizing teams. Susanna is a sought after speaker and panelist and the moderator of Innovation in Mind conference.

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