LaunchPath Innovation

What if I Fail?

This video is an excerpt from "Lesson 103: The Innovation Process" – one of the many lessons provided in our innovation platform. In it, Laura walks us through how to make the most of the inevitable setbacks any intrapreneur will experience.


Understanding the risk of failure within the innovation process and how to respond.

While we have presented the innovation process like this: a steady march forward through six well-defined stages.  The reality is much more like this: a lot of dead-ends and pivots; a lot of two-steps-forward-and-one-step-back. So the questions is, how will you respond when you encounter the inevitable setbacks of the innovation process? What will you do when management rejects your great idea? When you finally find a great market, but your model is a flop when you finally get a customer to trial your solution, but the results disappoint?

Many of us have an unhealthy fear of failure – especially in the workplace. And if an innovation project setback makes you feel anything like this, it will only be natural to react with shame blame and avoidance, which is clearly not productive. So let’s tackle our fear head-on by exploring the dimensions of failure, and how we should respond.

As Professor Amy Edmonson of Harvard Business School explains, there are many causes of failure. Some of these are truly blameworthy such as deviant behavior, laziness, or gross incompetence. Others are completely praiseworthy such as exploring new markets or technologies, testing business model hypotheses, or making the best decisions possible under conditions of extreme uncertainty. Where do innovation failures fall on this spectrum? Clearly they are in the “praiseworthy” category. The second dimension of failure is its cost, and again we see a broad spectrum from catastrophic to negligible. If not well-managed, the cost of innovation can be extraordinarily high. But if you are using a disciplined innovation process the costs can be kept in check. When we bring the pieces together the causes of failure and the costs of failure, what we learn is that all of our setbacks on the path to innovation occur within this nice, safe, praiseworthy, low-cost zone.

Informed by this new perspective, we can learn to master our fear of failure and respond in a more productive way. Here are three specific actions we recommend whenever you encounter a setback on the path to innovation:

  1. Celebrate. As Teddy Roosevelt put it,  “It is not the critic who counts; not the person who points out where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the person who is actually in the arena.” Take some pride in the fact that YOU are a doer of deeds.
  2. Learn. Sit down with pen and paper and write out your responses to the following questions: What worked? What were the opportunities for improvement? Which of your key innovation framework assumptions were correct? Which need to be revised?
  3. Persevere. Not necessarily with the same project or approach, but with the overall enterprise of innovation. Success is not inevitable, but it is certainly possible, and if you prove yourself to be one of the rare people who never gives up, your odds of success are much, much better than average.

What important questions can you ask to turn inevitable setbacks during the innovation process into opportunities to learn?

  • What worked?
  • What were the opportunities for improvement?
  • Which of your key innovation framework assumptions were correct?
  • Which need to be revised?
Mannie Schumpert

Mannie Schumpert

Mannie has been designing and developing for the web for 17 years, and has built web applications for Fortune 500 companies as well as software that is used by thousands around the globe. A voracious lifelong learner, Mannie has devoted much of his time to studying the varied disciplines of music, visual arts, technology, and cognitive and behavioral science.