Monday, May 14, 2012

The Ups and Downs of Innovation

Chutes and Ladders is one of my five-year-old daughter’s favorite board games. It may provide a fitting parable for the “ups and downs” of innovation.

In the game, progressing “up” the board toward the finish is painstaking and plodding and peppered with an occasional boost from a ladder or two that catapults you up toward the finish. In contrast, the chutes “down” seem more swift and catastrophic than even the lucky jumps up the ladders. Chutes feel more punitive than ladders are rewarding.

When my daughter first started playing this game, she enjoyed the wins, but was ready to quit the game altogether after “experiencing” a chute. With a bit of coaxing, however, and enough experience from a few ladders and wins, she learned to accept the downs with the ups and kept playing. Now it is one of our favorite games.

Companies investing in innovation efforts can easily follow the experience of my daughter with Chutes and Ladders. Early progress can be exhilarating and empowering, at least until the experience of the first, then the second and then additional “chutes.” The more swift and traumatic the “fall,” the quicker the company is ready to “cut the losses” and bail on the game altogether.  It is not until a company experiences a few innovation wins – accomplished even with an “unfair” share of chutes – that a company can muster the patience to stay in the game.

What I hope my daughter is learning from Chutes and Ladders is that success builds slowly, and failures are often swift, but both are part of the game. It is a profound lesson that too few companies are quick to learn regarding innovation. High performance in the context of innovation efforts is arguably the exact opposite of high performance in ongoing operations. Faults and failures are to be eliminated in the latter; while in the former, they are occasions for accelerated learning so necessary for reducing the new idea or concept to practice.

This is the difference between innovation and a board game: learning from our failures enables innovation efforts to become less a roll of the dice or a spin of the wheel.

Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes in last month’s Harvard Business Review (August 2002) quote IBM’s Thomas Watson, Sr. as saying, “the fastest way to succeed is to double your failure rate.”  Farson and Keyes argue for what they call failure-tolerant leadership and infer fault-tolerant innovation process or framework. In the same Harvard Business Review issue, John Wolpert (who leads IBM’s Extreme Blue innovation incubator in Austin, Texas) proposes innovation intermediaries as a way to overcome the otherwise introspective and chronically ineffective innovation efforts of large companies.

What both articles are pointing toward is the very thing we are attempting to understand in our Innovation Focal Point Study) including cultivating – where and when appropriate – the intermingling of internal and external networks.  It is through the deliberate and active cross-pollination of these networks that effective innovation focal points turn a company’s experience with innovation efforts from a board game into a more reliable business process.

Some degree of fault tolerance built into your innovation process can eventually transform even the steepest “chute” into a long ladder, and ultimately into innovations that work.

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in September 2002. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at or call (415) 387-1270.    

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