Your words may destroy an innovation…

Great email question that came in yesterday. “I don’t understand the difference between saying innovators fail, and innovators never fail they just find ways not to do things.” As always I get great comments via email and great comments on the blog as well. Keep those coming!!!!! Conceptually some people are motivated by the concept of negativity. Some people are driven to quit because of negativity. So the most important thing is to evaluate each innovators personality before picking the path of encouragement.

Innovators don’t fail. But if you tell them they failed it just might be the motivation they need. Or it may shut them down forever…

Failure can be a negative thing. In my book “Why aren’t all innovations (and innovators) the same?” I talk about why failure isn’t a good word in the innovation game. First off because failure often has an institutional response (shut the project down). Even in the crowd funding world there are hues and cries about slipped timelines and longer than expected waits. It should be noted however that in the end some people are driven/haunted by Innovation. I would argue that driven/haunted isn’t a great way to get someone to the point of successful innovation (at least it doesn’t work as well for me)( but there are people who live by the motivation of failing.

The process for an innovation to go from what is to what could be is really not as easy as you would think. First off someone has to have a vision. That vision has to move something either up down. or to left or right. There has to be change. Coca which was served hot and as a drink became chocolate bars. The vacuum cleaner went along for 100 years until someone realized there was a better design that created more suction and it changes the vacuum market.

As I said yesterday innovation is about moving the dial not always a lot. Sometimes it is simply making it easier to complete the same task. When it comes to the actual human being doing the innovation its critical to note their motivation. Most of us, based on the school systems we grow up in are motivated NOT TO FAIL. Schools have to teach basic skills in order for people to be successful. A lack of following rules gets you in trouble in school (and later in life as well) such as grammar, spelling and the other core skills we can’t fail at early in life. We create the fear of failure every time we remind someone that the word the is spelled T-H-E. Or that sentences must always have objects, nouns and verbs in order to be good sentences. Regardless of how it sounds when it is read aloud good grammar is everything and if you don’t have it you fail.

So fear of failure motivates us frequently. There are those however who thrive on failing. Like Edison they would never call it failure, they would just as I said yesterday call it “the wrong way to solve the problem.”

How do we educate people to take risks? To consider other ways of solving problems? First off it really can’t be done until the learner understands the core concepts of our world. This by the way does not mean forcing them to become a good speller or a professional grammatical wizard. Rather that they have the core basics in place. This includes understanding mathematical realities, scientific processes and the rules of whatever language they use.

This is not intended as a condemnation of schools in our country. We have to have a solution that introduces the core critical concepts needed. But we also need a system that allows for creative expression and the expansion of ideas and concepts. Frankly that is a more expensive system that also requires more time (not 185 days in a year but 210 or 215 days a year).

Juan Piaget talked about the phases of learning within a student. Where students begin as concrete learners (two glasses, one tall and one wide – which is larger> and the learner responds the tall one). During that initial concrete phase of their learning experience it is critical to build the skills. But to create innovations we have to help students consume and synthetize information and ideas.

I guess to bring everything back to the original question for some people failure is acceptable. They believe in their ideas strongly enough that the failure world won’t scare them. They simply put down the wrong way to solve the problem and move on to the next. Companies and organizations hate failure. Its why they create R&D departments so that they never have to see or feel failure. Most of us grow up fearing failure. Like the organizations we work for and with we fear the word and the concept. In the end the difference is what motivates the innovator. If I am motivated by people saying “you failed” then by all means say I failed. If however like most people I have a fear of failure instead perhaps say “hey that doesn’t work.” rather than label it a failure.

My words in this blog will not change the world. But be careful, that innovator you are talking to may be deathly afraid of failure. Your words may destroy an innovation.


Scott Andersen

IASA Fellow.