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Embracing Failure and Working at the Edges

Embracing Failure and Working at the Edges

Before you innovate, you need to re-think the way you think about innovation. Innovation surprises us. It’s often not what we would expect it to be—and it often requires us to do things we wouldn’t do in our day-to-day lives. In innovation, failure is unavoidable. Any time you try to learn something new—which is precisely what innovation is—there is a developmental cycle. It doesn’t matter how old you are. Take out a piece of paper, draw a picture of a dog, and I can tell you at what you age you stopped learning to draw. Learning how to innovate is like speaking a foreign language or playing a musical instrument: you need to get practice and experience—and fail—before you can get good at it.

Instead of trying to avoid the inevitable failure that comes with learning how to innovate, try to accelerate it. Think about how venture capitalists invest. They’ll give money to many different companies that are trying to produce a therapy for the same disease. Why are they spreading out so far? Because they’re trying to accelerate the failure cycle. In the next round, only two or three companies will survive, and by the time that company has an initial public offering, one will remain. They’re very quickly turning over—or churning—their portfolio to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

Innovation does not happen in the middle of the organization. Rather, it happens from the edges. Imagine a bell curve. Think about what goes in the middle of your organization. There are all kinds of hurdle rates about who gets money, measures about what we’re going to do, rules about who we’re going to hire. So the middle of the organization is designed to eliminate variation. It’s designed to become efficient or optimized.

Now think about the edges of the organization. This is where things are either in a crisis or going really well. Whenever there’s a crisis, the risks of innovating and the rewards of staying where you’re at are reversed. When things are going poorly, you’ve got nothing to lose. The same is true when you’re on a roll: you can—and should—try lots and lots of new things. We call this risk capital. The point is this: instead of launching your innovation in the middle, which is designed to get rid of variation, launch the innovation at the ends, where risk and reward are reversed. This is where you’ll find truly fertile ground.

Embracing failure, working at the edges—these are strategies that would not work in other aspects of organizational culture. But in innovation, they are crucial. When we innovate, we don’t do the same things we do in our everyday routines. We deviate. We experiment. We take risks. The unexpected becomes a good thing. Don’t move in straight lines, don’t fall in love with your solution—fall in love with the problem.

Special thanks to Big Think for use of this video. Please visit them at

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