“To banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality.” — John Ruskin
During a web chat this morning the speaker (very bright, Australian) posed a thought-provoking question: “When was the last time a client gave you permission to fail?”
It didn’t take me long to supply an answer. These days client relationships don’t make it past the first serious fail, and certainly not a series of sustained gaffs. There aren’t too many Mad Men meetings over martinis and knowing chortles to smooth things over while the checks keep rolling in. You get it right or you get gone. So how is a company–any company–supposed to innovate if the risk of doing so threatens the very security of the client relationship? Often times it feels that a company’s success is defined more by its lack of failure, error, and missteps than it is by its innovative excellence.
We’re all living in the era of ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation.’ They’ve outlived their own clichés. This is especially true is you consider yourself a member of the Creative Class. Listening to this morning’s speaker I was struck by the very limitations that ‘innovation’ places on the person responsible for such creative change. Be honest: Are you really going to stick your neck out with a legitimately innovative idea if it threatens the stability of either your job or your organization? On many levels it seems that what we call ‘innovation’ is far too interested in protecting its own interests than it is at devising experimental models, services, or practices that may legitimately create a new Awesome. Part of this dilemma is organizational. Even in the most creative companies there is a dominant hierarchy that is self-serving (doesn’t matter how many ping-pong tables and yoga dens you have in your loft space). Part of this dilemma is cultural. It feels good to declare that your business is ‘changing the game (fist pump!). Yet, if creative innovation is a slogan rather than a supported, encouraged, risk-free, and on-going dialogue then it’s little more than water cooler banter. Finally, a significant portion of this problem lies in the simple fact that most companies are not comfortable with the reality of creative obsolescence. Every great idea runs its course. That’s cool. It’s ok. Nobody wants to see another Darth Vader Volkswagen commercial during the Super Bowl. But if innovation is yet another new tasting toothpaste or a more chocolate-y chocolate bar then the point becomes self-evident.
What if someone wrote you an $18,000 check to try out a new idea without any expectation of return? You’d probably give it a go right? This is exactly what a group called the Y Combinator does. They pay people to innovate, with no promise of success, fully recognizing that failure is a likelihood. Sometimes they’re right. But if you ask Dropbox, Bump, or a host of other successful innovations I’m sure they’d say something to the contrary. We can learn a few things from the tech-based Creative Class in this sense. There wasn’t a market for Facebook. Nor was there a market for Twitter, Air BnB, ZipCar. The innovators made the markets by designing something that had absolutely no promise of purchase. They simply built them. Made things easier. And with no fear of failure some utterly fantastic products resulted. Twitter is now valued at $11,000,000 and ZipCar just sold for an immodest sum. But without getting grandiose, what can a small business do to encourage this type of fearless innovation?
Keep your business in perpetual beta. I know too many businesses that still believe in an end game: Perfect processes, products, procedures. The reality, however, is that business is organic. ‘Perpetual beta’ means that nothing is perfect..ever. And there is always an opportunity to solve a new problem, create a new service, devise a better strategy. Even if this means overturning long-standing beliefs and convictions. Standing on the shoulders of giants does not mean that you can’t jump off, or just a little bit higher.
Keep your business connected to external collaborators. Groups like Y Combinator and Kickstarter have shown us what it means to have strong external support on both an intellectual and financial level. The broader point being that great ideas often flourish with the foster and support of equally enthusiastic external partners.
Love the hack-a-thon. What would happen if your business spent one day per month devoted to nothing more than hacking a new problem? Devising new solutions? Brain dumping great ideas for consideration? Worst case scenario: All of your employees would feel engaged in the future of the organization. Just imagine the best case…
Incubate a few new projects every year. I’ve rarely met a business owner, executive, or manager that doesn’t have a ‘I’d love to do THIS’ idea floating around. And most of these cool ideas never see the light of day. They fester and die under the weight of other top-down agenda items and yet another stunningly dull power point presentation. But what if you actually took the time and involved the right people in the incubation of two or three new projects every year? Against the better judgement of the normative masses you might actually introduce something stunning in to your market and begin to create actual differentiation.
Don’t lie to yourself about being obsessive about details. I’ve known many folks who describe themselves as ‘detail freaks’ who are closer to micro managers that actual detail nuts. Granular data is one thing. Designed details are altogether another thing. Ask any designer, engineer, coder. They’ll show you want being obsessive about details means. If you want to innovate you can’t leave anything un-designed. It demands fanatical attention if you’re going to honestly make a new project or idea take hold.
In Silicon Valley it’s rumored that Google employees spend 20% of their time away from tasked assignments and use this luxury to think about new opportunities. Apple reports that 80% of its revenue is generated from products that did not EXIST six months ago. Lofty, right? Yet we can extract something from these goliaths: They spend time, serious time, keeping their businesses in perpetual beta. We can, and should learn from these companies. Keeping your business in perpetual beta means that actual status-quo shattering innovation is an encouraged and enthusiastic conversation rather than a self-congratulatory talking point. The question then becomes: “What would you try if you couldn’t fail?”