Trip, fall, fail, learn. And start again.


Innovation is the word these days. Everyone wants to innovate. The 80’s had cost killers, the 90’s were into lean management. 2000 came with shared service centers and business process outsourcing. The 10’s had to have their buzzword.

Do not get me wrong. Yes, innovation is necessary. Always was, always will be. What is more of a concern is the capacity of companies to align their organization and culture with their aspiration. It is true for a great number of subjects. Even more so regarding innovation.

Such a vast topic, however, will not require a long and difficult recipe. Innovation is an attempt at the unknown, the never-done-before. By definition innovation is therefore a risk. Need another proof? It comes with a return and the bolder the innovation, the higher the return may be. It very much resembles financial markets in that respect, which are themselves based on risks: the higher the risk, the higher the payback.

Now that we have defined the main property of innovation, it is time to set for the brutal truth: risk-free innovation does not exist, unless your idea of a breakthrough in financial investment is a state bond. The same goes within firms: managers who are not eager to take risks are not tomorrow’s Edisons (trust me: Alexander Fleming’s penicillin was as frequent an accident as receiving a letter from the tax office suggesting you are unfairly overtaxed).

Risks necessarily come with failure. The more you want to innovate, the more you need to agree with the concept of risk, that a chance you will not succeed – it does not necessary mean you need to be risk-prone all the way or take massive risks. It just takes to accept the concept of failure for yourself and your team. A mandatory step in the methodology is the definition of an acceptable level of risk you are willing to live with as well as where you really draw the line.

Fail. Fail again. Show that failure is not a problem, as long as lessons are learnt from it. Let your team be comfortable with this idea. A worker who is scared of making mistakes is the opposite of a creative worker. She will soon only adopt the conventional, accepted ways, do as others did before her, become conservative and repress initiatives. She will run for cover and take no risks so that she’s not told off because she failed. Forget disruptive innovation then!

You want innovation? Create a secure, encouraging environment for her to trip, fall and learn from it. Make it a safe place to risk. Do not sanction her mistakes as long as they are of the exploratory or test-tube persuasion. Promote trial-and-error. You will know you have succeeded when she fails and feel confident to start again.

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