Embracing Failure
Transformational Innovation from Breaking Away

In Executive Education at the UC Davis Graduate School of Management, we’ve noticed a heightened interest in custom programs on the topic of innovation. Many leaders want to propel their companies to become more innovative, but are unsure of where to begin. I hear a lot of questions like: How do I build a roadmap or action plan to foster innovation? What does success look like?

In my quest to discover a model for innovation, I came across Breaking Away: How Great Leaders Create Innovation that Drives Sustainable Growth—and Why Others Fail, written by Jane Stevenson, Chairman, Board and CEO Services at Korn/Ferry International and Bilal Kaafarani, who has been a “serial” innovator at P&G, Kraft, Pepsi and Coca-Cola.

I very much appreciate that the book takes an ‘in the trenches’ approach—too often innovation is discussed in an abstract or theoretical manner. We’re able to learn from the authors’ first-hand experiences, as they deliver a framework to propagate innovation in organizations that help facilitate sustainable business growth.

The authors looked at innovation through time, and were able to distill four categories that they consider to be timeless principles; they learned that although applications have changed, there wasn’t any divergence in the underlying principles:  the categories are discussed in depth on their website. Ask yourself: how many of these categories are represented in the way your organization operates?

  1. Transformational Innovation
  2. Category Innovation
  3.  Marketplace Innovation
  4. Operational Innovation

The authors explain that Operational and Marketplace Innovation are most commonly utilized by businesses today. The real challenge, they say, is Transformational Innovation: a disruptive breakthrough that changes society and so impacts the way we live over time only to become something we can’t thrive without. Few companies commit the resources that allow Transformational Innovation to succeed, but those that do can eventually reap tremendous rewards.

Beyond Mistakes and Embracing Failure

One of the key steps to harness Transformational Innovation is by empowering employees to take risks. And yes, that means letting them do something wrong now and then, so that they can help you discover what’s right for the company.

Now, accepting failure as a necessary step to achieve progress is not a new concept. But the authors of Breaking Away push us to go beyond an aversion to failure. Take a moment and think about the risks involved in being okay with some failure, and what that looks like for your company.  Did you start to have a panic attack?

One way to overcome the aversion to failure is to consider its value. Failing at something helps you forge new avenues for expansion, new methods of production, and provides the latitude to bring forth a groundbreaking and innovative idea. Once you grasp how much risk and failure are really worth, leaders can start to appreciate its power, and even visualize all the untapped potential latent within your company.

As a leader, you set the tone for the organization, playing a critical role in how your workforce perceives mistakes, and how far they’re willing to go in pushing the company to the next level. Consider the way you react to those who make mistakes. Harsh and unforgiving? Understanding yet firm? Your reaction can make the difference between fostering a workforce driven to help you succeed, and a culture of stagnation and status quo.

You have the power to change the way people contribute in your workplace. You have the power to own the innovation agenda and drive it from the top. Ultimately, innovation is all about empowering yourself and others to reach for what’s possible. Feel energized? That’s what I thought.

Finding Opportunity: Don’t Throw the Baby Out with the Bathwater

Consider is the way in which you regard mistakes: don’t look at them as black and white, right or wrong. Search for an opportunity that might have inadvertently presented itself; just because a certain process or product didn’t serve the purpose for which it was intended, doesn’t mean it won’t work brilliantly in another application.

Andrew Hargadon, the UC Davis Graduate School of Management resident expert on innovation, explains: “Most good ideas come from somewhere else.” In his talk (embedded above), Andy walks the audience through some landmark instances where new ideas and opportunities materialized under surprising circumstances, including Viagra and Coumadin. These examples prove that failures can be seen in a different light to become solutions.   Mistakes could lead to other solutions, or mistakes may force us to innovate in order to solve the problem.

What opportunities might you have discarded in the past, without understanding the gold mine right under your very nose?

On October 16-18, 2012 in our San Ramon campus, UC Davis Executive Education will launch an innovation program titled “The Leap Forward” featuring Professor Andrew Hargadon.  The program will coach executives on how to recognize opportunities and drive commitment in the face of uncertainty. Stay tuned for more information on the Exec Education website or for more information contact Wendy Beecham, Managing Director of Executive Education.


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