Roll up Your Sleeves Because Innovation is Messy

Let’s just cut right to the point: innovation is messy. Sure, you can take a methodical approach to nurturing a culture of innovation in your organization. You can hire people with skills and experience who complement your efforts to think bigger. You can draft policies that encourage outside the box thinking and growth. You can reward creativity. No matter how methodically you approach it, however, innovation comes with a measure of chaos and uncertainty. It is, at its core, a venture into uncharted territory, which requires a willingness to step away from the organized neatness of the known.

Debate and Disagreement

In theory, sure, your team could be so incredibly attuned to one another that the first brilliant spark of an idea uttered at your brainstorming session is met with a round of raucous applause and buy-in. In theory that same team will come to immediate consensus on how to get from where you are today to where you want to be. The reality, however, is that innovation can be rocky. It can be full of debate and disagreement, starting with the birth of the idea and throughout the entire process of bringing that idea to fruition. Actually, let’s back up a moment. It’s not that it can be rocky, it should be a path peppered with discussion, debate, refinement, and compromise. In fact, if your innovation process often includes immediate consensus, you’re probably not straying too far (if at all) from your comfort zone. You want to really grow and shake things up? Leave that safe space where everyone readily agrees.

Stops and Starts

Look closely at leaders and organizations with a reputation for being innovative. Look really close. Here’s what you’ll see: they don’t succeed with every project they take on. Take Apple, as an example. The tech giant’s Newton Message Pad was an abject failure. Debuting in 1993, this personal digital assistant didn’t live up to its early hype. In fact, you might have been hard pressed to believe that Apple would ever be a serious player in the mobile device space based on this attempt. Fourteen years later, Apple would introduce the world to the first iPhone and the rest is history. If you want to innovate, you have to be willing to take risks and fail – then get up, learn from your mistakes, adapt your plans, and try again.

Sidetracked (even if it takes a while)

Dr. Spencer Silver’s job was to develop new adhesives for 3M. While working to create a stronger, tougher adhesive, Silver managed to produce one that stuck lightly to surfaces without bonding tightly to them. In other words, you could stick things together and then easily separate them without issue – and the adhesive would retain its stickiness. It clearly wasn’t the bigger, stronger substance he had been looking for. It was, however, the seedling of an idea that would eventually grow into the now ubiquitous Post-It Note. That in and of itself is an important lesson in innovation: sometimes the new awesome thing you generate isn’t what you set out to achieve.

Layers of Innovation

Here’s the bigger lesson in Dr. Silver’s story: sometimes your idea’s viability is directly linked to someone else’s spark of brilliance. It was years between Silver’s discovery of this sticky substance and the first Post-It. He knew he had something worth holding on to, he just didn’t know what to do with it. It took another 3M Scientist, Art Fry, and his quest for a bookmark that would stick to paper without damaging a page to bring to life the yellow square of slightly sticky paper we all know and love today. If you really want to get inspired, check out the history of the Post-It on the brand’s website.

But, it’s not a free for all

Google “fail fast quotes” and you’ll get a long list of quotes ranging from Winston Churchill to Woody Allen touting the integral role failure has in success. Recognizing that innovation and growth require a willingness to fail isn’t the same as encouraging reckless experimentation. To quote Marc Andreessen, “My goal is not to fail fast. My goal is to succeed over the long run. They are not the same thing.”

Being willing to fail doesn’t mean you throw caution to the wind and dive into a new project without doing your due diligence. It means you work smart. You identify a potential innovative idea. You test it. You press the edges of it to see how it gives and bends. You experiment. You make every effort to be successful at it. You evaluate the performance of this idea and make adjustments as necessary. You aren’t setting out to fail. You’re aiming for a win and recognizing that maybe this iteration isn’t the one that lands you at the finish line. Maybe this time out of the gate is your “Newton PDA”, but the lessons you learn on this one will lay the foundation for future success.