Innovation and the Courage to be Wrong

To update C.K. Chesterton: Conservatives think Liberals are too prone to make mistakes, while Liberals think Conservatives are unwilling to ever correct their mistakes. No, I don’t want to engage in any political debate, but I do think that same divide that is so prevalent in politics also comes up when the subject is innovation. When is it appropriate to abandon what we already know and believe (with all the risks that entails), and when is it appropriate to hold onto life’s reassuring certainties (with all the risks that entails)?

In any successful business there are many things that are going well: reliable business processes, proven products, predictable customer needs. So it’s certainly understandable that there would be resistance to changing them. In many organizations, making that shift tends to wait until something is no longer working. Yet isn’t it better to anticipate the need for change and prepare for it, than to only react to problems that can no longer be ignored? Wouldn’t we all like to head off problems when we can?

But how do we know when circumstances are ripe for change, and what needs changing when it’s still working? It’s hard to know which is worse: creating unnecessary disruptions by acting when we don’t have to, or missing an opportunity by failing to act when we can.

My friend Mark Turrell, founder of Imaginatik and to a great degree the founder of idea management generally, has years of experience and vast amounts of data on the ideas people have submitted within organizations. He once told me he had discovered a criterion for evaluating any new idea that works 98% of the time—98%! What’s the criterion? It’s simple:” That idea sucks!” In other words, really good relevant workable ideas are quite rare. So isn’t the safest response is to just shoot them all down? If that’s the choice that works 98% of the time, why not make it? Who wouldn’t respond to such overwhelming feedback and maintain a skeptical stance? What rational person isn’t tempted to take that bet?

The problem of course is that innovation is found within that tiny 2%. Until someone is willing to face those very long odds, innovation stops cold. Most of us mistakenly assume that we can spot a good idea when we see one. But the reality that’s been demonstrated time and time again is that no one—no one—has developed a way to reliably identify that 2% in advance. So inevitably the process of finding which ideas fall into that narrow range often ends in failure. Hence being willing to fail, to be wrong, is one of the key characteristics of an innovator. You don’t have to like failure, and you certainly don’t want to go looking for it. But you have to be willing to accept it and move on in order to find the rare gems you’re seeking.

I call it being both the Fighter Pilot and the Monk. It’s having the courage and confidence and faith to try an idea, while at the same time the profound humility to accept failure when it comes. It’s not even balancing the two but rather being supremely courageous and supremely humble at the same time. It’s being totally committed to pursing an idea with all the energy and resources we can muster, yet willing to accept a miss instead of a hit…and then being willing to do it all over again.

Innovation requires the courage to be wrong.

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