When Innovation Turns Into Exasperation

Failed innovations can be traumatic for teams. They feel a sense of devastation. Sometimes cynicism about innovation replaces enthusiasm for it or fear of another failure paralyzes team members. A former Google executive, who headed the company’s ill-fated Google Wave venture, shares important lessons for leaders and managers.

Innovation trauma is often found in a situation where a team has become close and worked together in startuplike conditions during an intensive period, says Liisa Valikangas, professor of innovation management at Aalto University in Finland and a research affiliate at the nonprofit research organization Institute for the Future in California.

On the negative side, members of failed teams can be viewed in some companies as bringing a “culture of failure” to subsequent teams and projects. Other firms take a more positive view, helping team members to realize their work wasn’t in vain and extracting valuable lessons and practices from the failed project.

Leaders can help establish a culture that celebrates the team’s hard work and doesn’t stigmatize those who worked on the unsuccessful venture. They can also encourage managers to diagnose what specifically worked and what didn’t, rather than pointing fingers and blaming others. Other companies have developed strategies to help employees cope with the grief that sometimes comes with experiences of failure. One expert cited in this article recommends adopting the mindset of companies in California’s Silicon Valley, where failure is an inevitable part of the process, and teams are used to mitigating their losses and moving on to the next big innovation project.

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