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Innovation Is a 10,000 Foot Free Fall

I hear so much lately about innovation with virtually every company claiming that they are innovative. Is that really true, or is it yet another over used buzz word that has no substance?  I personally see little true innovation, just claims of being innovative (who would say otherwise, right?).  One way to determine if innovative is actually taking place is to ask yourself a few questions:

  1. Are you scared (just a bit)?
  2. Do you have more skeptics than advocates?
  3. If you fail, are there repercussions?
  4. How do you define failure?
  5. How much permission did you need to execute?

I especially like the skeptics vs. advocates question. It directly correlates to a safe zone that is easy to fall into. It’s where little innovation can take place -- a black hole. Some of the best outcomes have occurred when there were few supporters (until it succeeded).

I have two broad categories of failure:

  1. Those that cause you to give up and fall back to the safe zone
  2. Those that drive your curiosity, and inspire you to continue

Very few companies actually embrace failure – they avoid it at all cost, bury the evidence, and reprimand those who attempted to be different. All of these common practices ensure no true innovation occurs.

Ready to Jump!10,000 Feet Drop

Many years ago I did my first free-fall skydive from 10,000 feet (no tandem or tie-line jump for me). Before the jump I was anxious, nervous with excitement, confident I would not freak, and proud that I was doing something many others wouldn’t. I was confident in the training I completed, the equipment and the instructors. After the jump (and smooth landing), I was exhilarated beyond belief. The feeling lasted for a few days. I was invincible. The only true scary part was that first step off the plane where I lost the feeling of solid ground. All those anxious moments were so worth it.

This experience correlates to how being in the midst of true innovation feels. If you are not nervous and at least a bit anxious about the outcome, you’re not innovating. If you have all the answers, you’re not innovating.  You don’t need to risk your life by jumping out of a plane, but if you don’t have more than a little anxiety, you’re not innovating. Innovation is not fine tuning something you did before. It’s not about getting permission from everyone you can think of. It’s not dumbing down the message so that it appeases everyone (and inspires no one).

Definition of Success Evolves over Time -- Be Patient

One project I started a few years ago had ridiculously high expectations for success. There was no budget and no commitment from stake holders to maintain it. It was definitely a setup for failure, but I saw what it could be and kept experimenting and learning. What I discovered is that despite the fact that some (still) see it as a failure I call it a success. It wasn’t long before we discovered what this program excelled at. We had a small but dedicated following that kept returning for more.  While it did not succeed at the goals initially expected of it, it did find its success. So is it a failure because it didn’t meet those goals? No – it found its niche, figured out what it’s good at and is doing a great job fulfilling that need.

I recently heard about a conference called FailFare which was held just this past month in Washington DC. It defines itself as “a celebration of failure as a mark of innovation and risk-taking.” It immediately caught my attention and I want to learn more. These were my kind of people. Has anyone attended one of these? I have met with one of the speakers and learned a lot about her experience. I’ll let you know what I learned in a later post.

Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.”
Winston Churchill

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2 Comments.


  1. December 12, 2012 at 12:52 pm

    This is very thought provoking and honest. Failure can take many forms, either in business or a career journey or even a side passion you decide to pursue. Failure often hurts, but it’s an amazing teacher. It forces you to really assess what occurred, what worked well, and where you went wrong. If looked at intelligently and honestly, I have found some failures to be life changing — and for the better.

    I’m intrigued by FailFare and will look into that.

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  2. December 12, 2012 at 4:12 pm

    Thank you for the comment Barry. It’s surprising how sometimes the things we fear, are often the most gratifying (after the fact). Depending on the type of work you do, failure can mean different things. For most of us, our work doesn’t involve saving lives, so failure is more subjective. With marketing or social media programs, the willingness to experiment, try different venues, different methods of communicating and creating great stories people want to hear (not just preaching products) is what we should be able to do freely. Having a death grip on the status quo because it’s how it’s always been (even if it no longer works), is what many teams get caught up in. These are the ones who need to innovate, but who resist it the most.

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