Why Failure is Essential to Innovation

“There is no innovation and creativity without failure. Period.” – Brene Brown

If we aren’t making mistakes, we likely aren’t reaching outside of our comfort zones, and that is the biggest mistake of all. Just consider the endless innovations and products that were result of mistakes. Take Post-It Notes for example. Inventor Spencer Silver was attempting to develop a strong adhesive for 3M laboratories in 1968 and came up incredibly short. Instead, he created an adhesive that stuck to objects, but could easily be lifted off. One of Silver’s colleagues was interested in this new innovation because his bookmarks were always falling out. When Silver combined his adhesive to paper bookmarks, 3M began distributing them as Post-It Notes, and now they’re a staple in American offices.

We have a similar story at HP. More than 30 years ago, HP Labs launched a research project designed to reshape the printing industry. The original goal was to create a portable printer for HP’s scientific calculators. However, John Vaught, an engineer in Palo Alto, had another idea. He demonstrated the use of thermal heating to eject droplets of ink through a tiny orifice to print text.  One challenge Vaught and the team faced was the erosion of the electrodes. The team realized they needed some other way to heat the ink. HP folklore has it that it was the coffee percolator on Vaught’s desk that led to the breakthrough.  It inspired the team to keep the heat source farther back, resulting in a small resistor that heated the ink, creating a vapor that injects the ink through the nozzle.  And while the idea of inkjet printing was not exclusive, his mechanism was the first to be used in a mass-produced consumer product. HP introduced the HP ThinkJet, the world’s first mass-marketed, personal inkjet printer.

There is also an interesting story about how one mistake leads to the invention of celluloid, the first industrial plastic. John Wesley Hyatt entered a contest to find a replacement for elephant ivory in billiard balls. While in his shop, Hyatt accidentally spilled a bottle of collodion – a syrupy solution – only to discover it created a strong material when it dried. I can’t help but think of all the innovations that Hyatt’s mistake has allowed. In fact, we recently 3D printed half of the plastic in our latest 3D printer. That wouldn’t have been possible without Hyatt’s maker spirit.

Successful leaders must empower their employees to make mistakes, learn from them, and innovate.

So what can we learn from these innovations? Successful leaders must empower their employees to make mistakes, learn from them, and innovate. You must fail, fail fast, and allow your employees to do the same. When your team recognizes they have the ability to fail, they can step outside of their comfort zones, learn from mistakes and truly innovate. From my experience, I’ve learned a company or only grows when being pushed outside to think outside of the box.

Here are a few tips to empower your team to deal with mistakes and how to bounce back from failure:

  1. Encourage failing fast. Talk about it frequently and practice it. Sometimes when we know that something is failing, our instincts want us to keep working until we succeed. However, it’s an important skill to know when to pull the plug.
  2. Share your personal experience with failure and how you bounced back. It will serve as a helpful reminder that everyone’s been there and ultimately succeeded.
  3. Champion stories of failure that convert to innovation inside your company. Share examples where mistakes turned into opportunity, even better if they turned into successful products. Your employees will feel empowered to reach outside their comfort zone.
  4. Urge your employees put safeguards in place so they don’t make the same mistake twice. Encourage them to document their lessons learned and steps they’ll take to safeguard against future mistakes. The lessons you learned will extend beyond you and help others learn from your mistakes – ultimately leading to more efficient innovation for the entire company.

In the end, it’s far better to make mistakes and innovate, then to stay still, frozen in fear.

What are your tips for turning mistakes into innovation? I’d love to hear your insight in the comment section below.

HP CTO & Global Head HPLabs. Technology futurist, passionate leader focused on 3dprinting, cybersecurity, drones, travel, and FriendsNational.

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