06: For success, expect lots of failures

Today, innovation often feels called upon to apologise for the drain on resources it represents, and for the dangers it may bring. No wonder it just as often portrays itself as broadly predictable. [1] To gain support, it can pretend to be a smooth process, uninterrupted by false turns, intractable difficulties, personal clashes, or budgetary mishaps.

In fact, though, a single serious innovation is invariably preceded by multiple failures. There is no need to be sentimental about failure being a badge of honour in Silicon Valley, or to be fascinated by failure. [2] Success remains the objective worth striving for. Yet as America’s Henry Petroski has written, the lessons learned from disasters ‘can do more to advance engineering knowledge than all the successful machines and structures in the world’. [3] Over 1990-2009, its production years, even a $5 billion failed enterprise like General Motors’ Saturn division gave the car industry many lessons on what to do and what not to do in future. [4]

In a scientific experiment, a negative result can be even more instructive than a positive one. In the same way prototypes, an indispensable stage in innovation, would not be prototypes if most did not fail.

To deliver a bright future, innovation requires bold experiments – and, sometimes, big failures. This is not a matter of recommending, as Gordon Brown has done, that the UK ape the liberal provisions of American law in relation to business bankruptcies. It is, rather, about recognising that the failure-laden process of scientific and technological innovation has the merit of converting major uncertainties into risks – risks that are quantifiable and frequently modest. More often than not, failure is a price worth paying for success.

Take the example of nuclear fusion. For many years, the world has failed to demonstrate that this technique can generate proper quantities of electricity. Yet that record of failure doesn’t mean that commercial nuclear fusion will always remain 30 years away. Too many make such a cynical, one-sided judgement. Much has been learned.

Failure cannot be avoided

Since the credit crunch, fears that starting a new business will end in failure have risen in economies stretching from Argentina to Finland. [5] In America, the proportion of adults fearing that their creation of a new business could end in failure is 28 per cent. In Britain, the figure is 38 per cent – and elsewhere, the figures are much worse (Japan 44, Italy 48, Germany 49, Spain 52, France 53). [6]

To fear failure at the modest scale of the individual entrepreneur is only a symptom of what, for society, is a much wider problem. If teachers cannot allow students to encounter and learn how to recover from setbacks, students will not look positively on experiment and action. If, among organisations, there is fear that the costs, schedules and payoffs of innovation are too tough to meet, then habit will return to using only what has gone before. Yet in innovation as in life itself, failure cannot be avoided.

In the crunch, many incline to hold back from innovation, preferring to pause, retrench, and wait until the storm blows over. They forget that this storm was itself caused not by failed innovations, but by the failure to make enough serious and connected innovations across a broad front, and certainly outside the financial sector.

Failed innovations are anyway worth preserving. Human effort went into these failures; indeed, whole careers were bound up with them. Nevertheless, insights were gained. In the future, too, separate innovations may help set this set of poor results, or that project stupidly terminated, in a brighter context.

A failure in innovation can rule out a line of enquiry, can challenge assumptions, or can prove the spur to the development of a simpler device.

In innovation, every failure is a success of sorts.

[1] Clayton Christensen and Michael Raynor make the mistake of thinking that innovation can be predictable. See The Innovator’s Solution, op cit.

[2] For the sentimentality about Silicon Valley, see for example Tom Peters, The Circle of Innovation: You Can’t Shrink Your Way To Greatness, Vintage, 1999, pp85, 86. For the fascination with failure now laid at the door of Generation Y, see Associated Press, ‘Failure 101: A class students could use’, msnbc, 5 November 2009, on http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/33673507

[3] Henry Petroski, To Engineer is Human: the Role of Failure in Successful Design, Macmillan, 1985, page x.

[4] ‘Saturn: a wealth of lessons from failure’, [email protected], 28 October 2009, on http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=2366

[5] Niels Bosma and others, Global Entrepreneurship Monitor 2008 Executive Report, 2008, Figure 4, page 17, on http://www.gemconsortium.org/download.asp?fid=849

[6] Ibid, Table 1, p16.


One Comment so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. There is no such thing as failure,,each setback brings more experience and knowledge and a spur to find more especially outside my own discipline of electrical and electronic engineering. Over the years I’ll seen oil tanks blow up, foundations collapse, systems fail to work as planned and then abandoned ..the last one cost £14 million.
    This is experience, when we know, we don’t need to guess or read a book.

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