Everybody and their brother is talking about creating innovation nowadays.
Where I live, our president, my state governor, my legislators (both local, state, and national), and the newspapers are all talking about how great startups and innovation is and how it’s all going to transform the world.
Total horse manure.
What’s going to transform the world is failure.
Picture this: you’re a mid-level manager at a big corporation. Your boss comes to you and says “Joe, we need more innovation in this company. So I’m giving you an unlimited budget to go out and make innovation happen so we can succeed. Each month you will report back to us on your status: what you’re doing to make innovation happen, what we are spending on it, and what your plans for the future are”
If you were an idiot, you would just find random people on the street, give them a few bucks, let them try for a few weeks, then kick them out. Meanwhile you’d be fishing in the Bahamas. But you’re not an idiot, you are highly-educated professional. So you bring in a team of the best and brightest people in the entire world on the subject of innovation. You create an “incubator” to help teams succeed. You establish funding programs and publicity programs around the successes for when they happen. After careful study and lots of modeling, you pick a few teams and give them a mission: Go make something useful for the company happen!
And you look like a moron.
Why? Because the first teams, while very good at taking your money, trying very hard, and telling you things you would like to hear, aren’t actually very good at making innovation happen. It’s not their fault: nobody is trying to cheat you. And it’s not your advisor’s fault: they are the best in the world.
Now the time for reporting has come. Do you: a) go to the board and tell them you are a failure, or b) find the best way possible to spin where you are and make your report sound as upbeat as possible?
Be honest, now.
I’ve watched a LOT of middle-level managers in my time. There are a few who would tell the truth even if it hurt them, but even with those people I have to believe that human nature would pressure you to find reasons why it wasn’t your fault: the team wasn’t exactly what you wanted, the experts disagreed and you should have chosen the other path, the funding was inadequate, other companies poached your expertise.
(In fact, the “other companies hurt us” line is especially rewarding. Not only does it take the pressure off of you, it puts it on an entity that the group is primed not to like)
But Daniel, you might say, surely innovation happens at large corporations.
Yes, it does. But nowhere near in proportion to the amount of money and effort that is spent on it. There are lots of reasons for this — try reading The Innovator’s Dilemma for some of them.
Let’s kick this up a notch. Let’s say you are a politician — doesn’t have to be anybody we know, just some national politician. You see a need for innovation to save the economy. What do you do?
For most politicians this is easy: you bring together the best thinkers you can, come up with a system for creating innovation, then make this system part of your platform. Once you get elected, you implement your system (Probably calling it something like “The Daniel Markham Center For Innovative Excellence” I only hope it has a statue in front)
A couple of years go by. Your center has created Jack Squat.
What do you do?
If you think our politician is going to come out and say he’s screwed the pooch, you haven’t been watching politics very long.
So what’s wrong here? To answer that question, I need to tell you about agile teams.
I teach teams how to be agile — that is, I try to help companies have their people work more like Google and less like the IRS. And as part of that, the first thing I look for is whether or not they have created a culture of failure.
In fact, the first thing I look at in any system of people is whether or not they have created a culture of failure. We desperately need more failure in the world, and we need to start encouraging it.
You see, our mid-level manager and our politician made the same mistakes: they assumed that given the correct inputs, the correct output would occur. That is, if only the system were set up in such-and-such a way, the right results would happen.
But what are the “right” results? Well, for the manager, it was something to help the company. For the politician, let’s be honest, it was something to make him look good.
The problem is: innovation is not a science. It doesn’t work from the top-down. It works from the bottom-up. You can’t decide ahead of time that every problem has a solution that this particular team can discover. What I want to see in my agile teams is the ability to say “The parameters you have given us preclude us from achieving the goals you want. Therefore we must stop”
That’s failure. Cold, hard, honest failure. Sorry boss, it was a great idea but you were smoking crack. Either change the rules or stop. You’ve failed. It’s not happening. I know you made a nice speech to the board about how we’re going to change the face of the company, but that was rhetoric, this is reality.
Everything we see in modern culture, from TV to movies to Facebook, tells us that there are three modes: success, failure, or not trying. The vast majority of people are not trying. They sit around watching TV or playing games, content in the knowledge that if they do not try, they will never fail.
Politicians, sensing this fear to fail, run on platforms that tell us there is no failure. Lose your job? No problem. We’ll pay your expenses. Have a house you can’t afford? No problem, we’ll make the banks come to terms. Need health insurance? No problem, we’ll make sure that’s provided for.
These are all worthy goals. Nobody wants to live in a world that’s cruel and harsh. (Even though, guess what, even after accomplishing those things the world is still cruel and harsh). I am not saying these goals are bad. I am not saying we shouldn’t have a moral society.
Along those line, I read recently that Norwegians have a socialist system that also has the highest percentage of startups in the world.
What an amazing statistic! Here most of us are teaching cold, hard capitalism and these guys have an incredible percentage of startups! Woohoo! Go Norway!
But then I asked myself: where are all the changes, innovation, and greater good that these famous Norwegian startups produce? I can’t think of very many hugely successful Norwegian startups at all.
Of course, the problem here is that, in Norway, you cannot fail. Hell, if everything is provided for you, you can be running your own startup from here to eternity. It’s just a really, really slow-growing startup. Hey look! Grandma has a startup. Been working on it since 1952.
I’m not trying to attack political systems. If you want a social democracy more power to you. I love Norway. I love change and believe that we should get better as a society. I firmly believe that emotional support, encouragement, and community support can be critical factors in success. What I’m trying to point out is that the coin has another side: that failure — falling flat on your ass, painful, humiliating failure — is a critical part of innovation and startups. When good-meaning people try to sell you on some idea or plan for innovation that’s supposed to be great and heavenly, you have to ask yourself “How will this fail?”
Because if you’re not having failure — and a lot of it — it’s never going to work.
As much I’ve outlined this, I’m sure that many of you will still hear “Daniel is telling us that we should be cold and cruel to each other” But I’m not. I’m trying desperately to tell you how to evaluate changes in your company or country. Because statistically we can see that some kinds of changes work better to help innovation than others.
Parts of life are chaotic. They work best by creative destruction, by random attempts and failures, by the randomness of certain events happening together. We have a really hard time grokking this. We want life to be an engineered thing. By blanketing life with billions of full-hearted attempts at success that end in failure, we optimize the chances that various pieces come together for the betterment of all. In the long run, the failures don’t matter, the successes do. But to have more successes we must necessarily have more failures.. Lots more. We need a million times as many failures as we currently have.
Politicians don’t get elected on failure. Mid-level managers don’t get promoted on failure. TV shows and movies aren’t done about failures. You will never read an article with a title like “The Silicon Valley: Home to Far More Failures than Anywhere on Earth” Failure — aside from being A Bad Word — just doesn’t exist in public. No wonder so many people shy away from it.
I don’t know. Perhaps this is something that you simply can’t explain to folks. You either understand it or you don’t.If you've read this far and you're interested in Agile, you should take my No-frills Agile Tune-up Email Course, and follow me on Twitter.