Innovation: Welcome to the failure factory
Agile isn’t enough
There is a lot of talk about creating agile organisations. For sure, agile is better than arthritic. When faced with a grizzly bear, my odds of surviving are improved if I am agile. I can duck and weave the bear’s flailing claw strikes. Plus, I can study grizzly bear anatomy and ursine acupuncture to ensure that my counterstriking is effective. Though taking on bears is generally to be avoided.
Fighting bears does resemble the world of business. The bear might be a major competitor or any number of macro-environmental forces.
In the industrial era, the bears were both visible and predictable. Eventually, business leaders baked the requisite agility into the business model. The organisation became bear-proof.
Adaptability is better
But today, as we scan for bears on the horizon, we might get bitten by a snake. We weren’t anticipating that and all our bear agility techniques have little impact on this new threat. But it’s not just bears and snakes. Threats, and opportunities, are popping up in unrecognisable forms and when least expected. Our bear agility (factory model) is proving increasingly ineffective. And in any case, we are not designed to fight bears, so going toe to toe with them was always a risky option.
Thus as we move into an era of increasing uncertainty and unknowability, we need to recognise that agility is not enough.
That is why we are starting to hear more about adaptability. So the response is less about becoming a more agile human and more about adapting into a lion or an elephant. That would tilt the odds in your favour.
DNA gives us a clue
Nature tolerates agility, but rewards adaptability Those most adapted get to survive. A cataclysmic event takes place. A subset of humanity survives because their DNA, and in particular their expression of that DNA, was better suited to the new environment.
But adaptability has connotations of intention and agency. You have misplaced your fork, so you improvise and use a spoon.
You have adjusted to the new reality. Your competitor has just acquired a major downstream player and can now enter the retail marketplace. You respond accordingly.
But nature is not like that. There was no plan to leave the ocean and learn to fly. It was much more accidental. Everyday the cells in our body reproduce. They do this through a process called transcription. The DNA of the new cells emerges from copying the DNA of the source cell. Sometimes transcription goes wrong. Most times it doesn’t matter. Sometimes it leads to disease and sometimes it leads to a positive adaptation. In other words, sometimes it leads to a useful mutation. One that enables us to survive seismic change. And because people with that mutation survive, they pass on this positive adaptation to the next generation and on it goes.
Fail fast and adapt things
Failure in respect of transcription is nature’s way of adapting to an unknowable future. So how do we move from being arthritic, or even agile, to being adaptable? The answer is innovation.
Broadly speaking, innovation is the process of taking an idea and turning it into value. It might be the improvement of an existing business process or the invention of a telephone that doubles up as a television.
Innovation – It’s not for us
The challenge for many industrial era organisations is that they can’t reconcile their efficiency preoccupation with the failure imperative of innovation. This manifests itself in the following ways:
- A lack of or little innovative activity. Failure is far too uncomfortable.
- A focus on innovations that lie within the comfort zone of the organisation to minimise failure.
- Constricting innovation. Isolating it into a department so that the ‘business as usual’ workforce is not exposed to the creativity contagion. That might well lead to rampant failure.
If we are to learn from nature, we must embrace failure. Innovation comes from experiments and failure is a natural by-product. Call failure learning if that feels better.
Innovation can blossom when constraints are applied. For example:
- We need to get these rocks to Stonehenge.
- We only have these objects with which to save Apollo 13.
- We need a vaccine today to avert the death of billions of people.
These are examples of known problems. However we are entering an unknowable world with unknowable problems. Nature tells us that the solution is to be found in amongst the failure.
The clever part is in recognising when the failure is a solution. 3M’s Post-its and Pfizer’s Viagra are the classic examples.
Thus leaders need to add number of experiments and failure velocity to their KPIs. The trick is to do this without upsetting the cashflows emerging from ‘business as usual’ operations. I’ll get on to that matter in a future post.