As a parent, I’ve often noticed that the smartest, most insightful parents are those who don’t actually have children. They have figured it all out and are eager to share their insights into what they’ve identified as other parents’ mistakes. These childless experts, with their hypothetical children and unproven theories about raising them, are analogous to an aspiring innovator in a company who has not yet gone through the trials and tribulations of actually developing an idea into a product. These types are passionate about their idea, but have no clue how to actually nurture a beloved concept from its embryonic state to maturity.
They will have little tolerance for risk and less patience for failure. But these are the twin propellers of successful innovation.
The innovation will look good on paper. It’ll sound good in meetings. Even the PowerPoint decks will lay out the well-choreographed development and commercialization plan. But in reality, conception of an idea, like a child (with or without the aid of alcohol), is the fun and relatively easy part. Pretty much anyone can do it. However, it takes a certain mindset to accept the risk and failure that developing an innovation entails. Like the ups and downs and the sickness and tantrums that come with raising kids, commercializing an idea ain’t all sunshine and rainbows.
Let’s be blunt… Ideas aren’t born perfect and beautiful. Oftentimes, they are pretty ugly in their infancies no matter their progenitor’s claims. In corporate innovation, the concepts that ultimately mature into products will have typically been shaped Darwin-style, through internal and external factors that killed bad ideas and strengthened feasible ones. This form of evolution is very normal. It should be built into the strategic innovation and project management process. Companies can use it to their advantage–if they accept that risk and failure are useful and natural.
Let’s be clear, innovation has ugly twin siblings, risk and failure, and they are a package deal. As Dr. Angele Sjong has said, “Invention isn’t pretty. It involves head-banging, head-butting, clawing, bulldozing and inhaling information… Invention involves a lot of face-plants.” The question is, if you want innovation, do you have the stomach for risk and failure? You can’t have one without the other two. Analogous to child rearing, there are too many unknowns in developing innovations without accepting risks and embracing failure.
I’ve worked at companies where vice presidents neither understood nor accepted the inevitability of risk and failure. One VP of R&D boasted that over his 20+ year career, only two projects of his hadn’t gone as planned. One of his peers bluntly replied, “That just means that you haven’t taken any risks.” The peer was totally correct!
I observed the same thing at my previous company, again, by the department VP. I was early in my career and doing early stage innovation and product development. This kind of work pumps out a lot of ideas, so you test them and hope one actually has merit. It was easy enough when the testing was a lab experiment. However, my department VP told us more than once not to run clinical trials unless we were sure the trials would be successful (and these were not the complicated and expensive drug development kind).
My direct supervisor took this edict seriously, but I thought it was stupid and ran counter to leadership’s demands and expectations for innovation. At best, my lab data would “suggest” that a technology will work, but that doesn’t guarantee anything in a “real-world” test. Risks will still be there! To the innovation leaders reading this: if you really want innovation, then you must accept the risk and the failure that comes with it. There are certainly ways to validate a technology by doing a series of confidence-building experiments. I’ve described this elsewhere. Nonetheless… THERE. WILL. ALWAYS. BE. RISK.
“You don’t know what you don’t know.” This cliché is apropo to developing innovation. By venturing into the unknown, you accept the risks and should expect failure, sometimes frequently. The misconception about failure in innovation and R&D is that it’s a final judgement or a sign of incompetence or low intelligence. This interpretation totally ignores the value of failure as a learning process that maps the unknown to find the known and, in turn, enable sound decisions on what to do next.
Seasoned innovators certainly understand the value of failure. They befriend failure and learn to co-exist with it. However, if you’re new to early innovation, i.e. going from idea to the first batch of experiments, then it might be quite a shift in your thinking. I see this play out when we work with 3rd party development partners to help with proof-of-concept experiments.
Identifying and engaging 3rd party organizations to help develop innovations is an art. We work with several that I’ll broadly call product development houses. These outfits know how to take a client’s core technology and develop a prototype or final product. The core technology has already been proven, so success and failure are based on developing the prototypes on time and at cost. Few are wired with the mindset for early-stage innovation work, i.e., the hair-brained idea stage, where failure to prove the principle behind an idea is a likely outcome. Getting the 3rd party to understand that that type of failure is actually a successful outcome can be a challenge. You might as well be trying to get them to understand the wave-particle duality of light.
We recently approached a product development house that we’ve worked with in the past with a project that was textbook mechanical engineering. They have fantastic engineers on staff. However, this project differed from our previous engagements in that it was “working in the dark;” the idea failing to work was a real possibility, and that failure held value for us and our customer. That didn’t sit well with the development house.
At first, they declined the project because they weren’t confident that they could successfully deliver a solution. Their mindset demanded reasonable certainty that they could successfully develop the idea into a product or prototype. Whereas for us, success meant quickly discovering whether our invention had merit. We just needed data to guide our decision at the project milestone on whether to invest in further development or kill it and move on to the next idea.
When I framed our expectations for outcomes as such, the development partner became eager to do the project. A refreshing change from their usual work, it was their chance to play and experiment in a new way! I work with innovators for a living, and they all describe a sense of play and creativity as the commonality between their ilk. Building failure into the project management process and defining an outcome in such a way gets engineers’ creative juices flowing.
Failure is a natural outcome for an early-stage innovation project. You don’t know what you don’t know, and you can’t predict the unknown. However, any result for a well-thought-out and executed experiment yields valuable information. The less unknown something becomes, the more you can shape and guide it. For example, does the idea work? If not, then what is necessary for the project to work? And if it does work, can it be done at scale? And if it can be produced at scale, is it economical? Is it safe? What might the supply chain look like? An idea can—and should–die for flunking any of these conditions.
The sooner we get answers to these questions, the quicker we can proceed to the next phase of development; or kill the project and redirect limited resources elsewhere.
The Speaking Scientist, Nick Milanovich, PhD is a rare combination of scientist, speaker, and presentations coach, with a head for marketing and sales. In addition to being Director, Innovation Services Group at Xinova, he helps other scientists and engineers communicate in a way that is meaningful to their sponsors, investors, and customers. Nick holds a PhD in biophysical chemistry and has published and presented on diverse topics such as clinical dentistry, cancer diagnostics, and quantum mechanical modeling of aerospace materials. Nick has guided countless scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and organizations with developing impactful presentations, investor pitches, and marketing materials in ways that resonate with their audiences. Nick has developed a reputation for exceptional results with start-ups, national and internationally recognized companies, and universities.
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