Most people will recognise the name Thomas Edison and conjure images of a successful inventor and innovator.  In many regards, this is true.  Edison invented the lightbulb which, over 150 years later, continues to be a fundamental technology humans rely on daily. 

Other inventions from Edison’s lab include the phonograph, the battery, the telegraph, movie camera and so much more.  He held over 1,000 patents and applied for another 600 applications.  He is famous for the thousands of experiments he undertook to arrive at a final product and in the process paved the way for modern research and development practices.  One of his most famous quotes is, “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”  

There’s no question that Edison was a pioneering innovator, not only because of his tremendous success bringing inventions to market that people wanted and needed, but also because of the approach he took to his work.  Persevering through continuous failure is not for the faint of heart, but it became his superpower.  

So, what exactly is failure?  Webster’s definition of failure is a lack of success; the omission of expected or required action; the action or state of not functioning; a falling short; state or condition of not meeting a desired or expected objective.  Certainly, those of us who are innovators can relate to at least one of these failure criteria.  

Today, especially in the midst of a global pandemic and economic crisis, we live in a soup of failure.  And because most humans aren’t trained to manage and deal with failure well, we’re having a difficult time.  Uncertainty is up; pain and suffering widespread; economic activity has declined; solutions are short.  We thrive in environments of stability and predictability and those are in short supply these days.   

For innovators, in general, we mostly operate in periods of uncertainty and change.  Not all innovators, but those who embrace constant evolution find strength and momentum in rapidly changing times.  This is our superpower.  

What does failure have to do with innovation?  Quite a bit, actually.  Unlike other corporate functional practices ‘innovation’ and R&D experience high failure rates.  Hundreds of thousands, millions of experiments are run every year in search of that next new thing that will produce a new future for organisations, and its customers and constituents.   Investing into these potential successes, that sometimes turn into failures, the organization accumulates significant knowledge.  3M, a world-wide leader in innovation and R&D, has over 100,000 patents.  But they aren’t even the largest US patent holder, that award goes to IBM with over 140,000.  Annually, these firms and others file over 2.5 million new patent applications per year.  And although these patents are important not all of them produce commercial value.  

Failure is a great teacher, potentially more than success.  Yes, success reinforces our knowledge and positively affects our confidence, and this is an important aspect of the human experience.  But failure is the great teacher.  So, if we’re looking to grow, learn and accumulate knowledge then failure offers wisdom.  If we have never failed, then we feel invincible.  There could be many reasons for a low failure rate, including low to no risk decisions or simply not reaching beyond our current knowledge.  In this instance, growth and dynamism are low.  For innovators, those who reach for that higher rung, who try new things, who attempt to bring change into the world, failure is inevitable.  

A corollary to failure is expressed by the best-selling author Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book, ‘Antifragile’. This concept is a more sophisticated lens on failure that proclaims that some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors, and love adventure, risk and uncertainty.  Antifragile is the opposite of fragile in that improvements and enhancements occur from uncertainty.  Taking this interpretation and applying it to the innovation lab, or to R&D experiments, more failures actually make a thesis stronger because of the accumulated knowledge that occurs through the exploration and development process.  In this case, failures are actually an asset.  

Most people, and certainly most large organisations, don’t think about failure as a net positive and this is unfortunate.  Most executives think of failure as a bad thing and it should be avoided.  This leads to small thinking and fewer experiments that could lead to breakthroughs.  One practice that could help reverse this trend is, after failures, produce a report, and distribute and review it throughout the organisation.  By doing this top brass sends a message that learning from failure is important and applying those learnings to future situations leads to knowledge accumulation and wisdom.  

Despite popular wisdom, innovation is a risk reduction strategy.  It is intended to be a hedge against disruption.  No other functional area of an organisation offers these types of promises within one department therefore having a robust innovation management system significantly increases the probability of future successes.  One method to reduce risk is to take many small bets that don’t threaten the core business.  This can be accomplished in a number of ways.  One is to create sandboxes for teams to experiment with new products, services, concepts, business models and technologies.  Allocating investments across a portfolio of projects also allows for a diversification of experiments and outcomes with the most promising receiving additional support and resources.

Another method to reduce risk is to learn from other industries.  Fundamentally, most companies face similar challenges: adapting to and deploying new technologies, investing in the future, creating innovation cultures, and funding innovation and R&D.  Sharing best practices and what works and what doesn’t across different industries offers a rich, non-competitive solution that can present new practices, offers, strategies and narratives.  

An additional method for reducing innovation risk is creating secure employment for those innovation leaders whose experiments fail.  This creates an environment where they can take their experiments to their logical conclusion.  If that end game becomes the trash bin, the organisation can support their efforts by not firing them and relocating them to another position with the organisation.  This sends a strong message to all innovators that they won’t be fired if their experiment fails.  

There is much to learn from failure and if Thomas Edison taught us anything, it’s that failure can lead to success, wisdom and new inventions.