Innovate without failure

“The universe is innately propelled toward chaos. We’re trying to fight that. Did you think it would be easy?”

— Hermann Hesse

Life is full of dichotomies — black or white, tall or short, empty or full, one thing or the other. Companies ask a lot from employees, and much of it contradictory. Workers are expected to be relaxed and productive, but not take vacations. Most of all, companies want employees that are innovative and leading edge, but are risk averse and never fail. They want innovation without cost, without risk, without experimentation. Companies may hire an employee for her ability to innovate, but then judge her on criteria that runs counter to that.

Working in a culture where you are judged on mutually exclusive traits is both frustrating and demoralizing. So how can you succeed? How do you innovate without risk of failure?


One answer comes from bush pilots who fly in and out of postage-stamp-size airstrips. I’ve had the opportunity to fly with highly experienced pilots in pucker-generating conditions and places. Different planes, places and pilots, but with one commonality: they all know exactly how much runway they need to safely achieve flight, and if they use up 70 percent of the available runway without reaching takeoff speed, they will abort the attempt.

What does this analogy mean to an innovation driven, startup-culture employee in a risk-averse corporate world? Take the risk, but have a backup plan ready to implement.

Startups can be nimble because they are small. Setbacks and small failures along the way are the expected cost of doing business. “Fail fast, fail often”and “fail forward” were terrible mantras that are now mostly dead and buried, but they highlight the fact that startups (and hopefully investors) realize innovation can be messy and rarely follows the expected path. However, even in a company that knows the risk of pioneering new territory, many are just one big mistake from closing the doors.

Larger companies, even the ones that tout their innovation-driven culture, have numerous interconnected moving pieces where team B’s piece depends on team A’s piece. If team A misses its deadline, the entire project falls apart. Holding up an entire project because someone was working on something “really cool” doesn’t fly. Team A has to deliver what they communicated they would.


An experienced pilot is confident in his abilities, but also knows when to listen to that listen to that little voice that says something is not going as planned, that he’s not going to make it. When other people, other teams, are counting on you to deliver, when that voice in the back of your head, the voice of doubt, starts to speak up, you have to take it seriously rather than push it out of your head as so many suggest. But that voice of doubt doesn’t mean it’s time to give up. It means to be honest with the people who are counting on you about what is actually happening, what are reasonable and realistic expectations. It means you are running out of runway and it’s time to start seriously considering what your plan B will be, how you can reuse or repurpose the work you’ve already done, and what the effect on the final project will be.

Fork the timeline

Instead of starting a project with a “go big or go home” attitude — which is the business equivalent of “hold my beer, watch this” — make a forked timeline with set milestones in advance.

The timeline serves dual purposes. First, set milestones notify you and your team when actual and anticipated progress deviate. Second, the fork automatically triggers plan B when the plan A is in jeopardy. If the team is big enough, perhaps one group can continue to build plan A while a second determines what assets and resources can be repurposed into delivering plan B on time. Taking this a step further, if development is built around small completed pieces or modules, rather than multiple parallel processes (e.g. UI is developed before coding), it will be easier to reconfigure them into a plan B that doesn’t look and feel like it was kludged together at the last minute.

One of the best pieces of advice I received early in my career was an 80-percent solution now is better than a 100-percent solution later. With proper planning, plan B may get the project delivered on time while plan A iterates toward completion and is added to the project at a later date.

We’ll look at how this is affected by management style and corporate structure in the next article.

Photos: Bill Brin


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