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To get more successes, you need more failures

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Rosabeth Moss Kanter, professor of business management at Harvard Business School, sits among the demi-gods of management. Whether or not you’ve read her books, the world around you, and indeed your business, will have been shaped by her thinking. She’s written about utopias, communities, being part of a minority group and, in her latest book SuperCorp, how the world’s leading businesses create social good. 

Straight off the red eye from the US this morning, Kanter captivated a small group of us at NESTA (the National Endowment for Science, Technology & the Arts). Her theme was innovation and how companies must create an environment in which new ideas can flourish. After all, she insisted, “without innovation, there is no future”.

For all of us wrestling with subdued demand and the technological whirlwinds swirling around us, her talk was rich, wise, alternately apocalyptic and reassuring.

Above all, I left firmer in my belief that we must all unleash the forces of creativity. Take our own sector, media and publishing, as an example. Our world is being transformed before our very eyes. Cast forward five, even two, years and it will be unrecognisable. Our industry’s reliable old revenues – eg, classified advertising – are locked in mortal combat with the web. The world of print awaits, agonisingly, the new age of the e-reader. We have to change to stay in the game. Innovation is non-negotiable.

So what kind of organisation must we, and milions of others across all industries, become to survive and thrive amid this maelstrom? Kanter: “innovation requires a culture of courage. Success is intimately bound up with failure. To get more success, you need more failures.” She cited research from the chemicals giant Du Pont, which reckoned that a single commercially successful product launch required 3,000 raw ideas in the funnel. For all of us, the message is: try more things.

The old mantra, “do it right first time” must be replaced with “do it better the second time”.

Don’t expect this to be easy. According to Kanter’s law, “everything can look like a failure in the middle”. Anyone undertaking a new project, launch, innovation must expect “difficult middles” – those times when you hit unexpected obstacles, forecasts aren’t met, the critics  hover and the initial launch zeal fades. To see it through, you’ll need a culture of persistence.

Interestingly, Kanter doesn’t believe that innovation should sit separate from an organisation’s mainstream activities – the old “skunkworks” model in which genius hairy geeks are set loose to improvise, experiment and imagine the next big thing. Instead, she advocates collaboration and a culture in which everyone’s voice is heard. “Separation destroys innovation,” she insists. The best innovations come when the technical wizards are kept close to their customers. Rapid prototyping and market testing will always outperform ivory-tower research. Take the original Apple team, who precisely fitted their own customer profile and was, therefore, able to realise their vision of “bicycles for the mind” and the democratisation of computing.

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