Innovation’s Dirty Little Secret

Yesterday I gave a talk on Innovation’s Dirty Little Secret at a conference in Phoenix. It’s one of those talks that always gets a strong response.

This time was no exception even though I was fighting a seriously wicked head cold (which must have produced some pretty gross sounds on the recording as I coughed and hacked my way through the material).

I subtitle this particular talk Confessions of a Serial-Innovator™ which, I know, sounds a bit self- aggrandizing. But bear with me. My point is that there are many single-shot innovators who have a great idea that rockets them to fame and success followed by lots of other great ideas that never seem to get any traction.

Serial innovators, on the other hand, seem to have an easier time getting traction for their vision of the future. They don’t just have lots of great ideas. They have lots of great results.

How do they do it? What’s the difference?

For one thing, serial innovators all seem to understand (either consciously or sub-consciously) that new ideas don’t succeed on merit alone. They know innovations’ dirty little secret: Most innovations fail.

Sure a lot of ideas fail because they are goofy, poorly thought out or poorly executed. But just as many great ideas never get off the ground. Just check out the patent office. It’s filled with plans for better mouse traps that nobody wanted.

Successful serial-innovators seem to know this. They know when to bail out and how to bail out of an idea, program or vision so that they don’t get stuck with the label of failure. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that they don’t fail. They fail a ton. But serial innovators know how to fail without looking like a failure. And not looking like a failure is important if you want to live to innovate another day – it’s the key to marshalling the troops or gaining the funding you’ll need for your next great idea.

Serial innovators make their plans with a clear exit strategy in mind. They don’t burn the boats. They unlock the back door in case they or their idea have to make a quick exit. Sometimes it’s with the words they use. Think how much easier it is to shut down an experiment than a new initiative.

Often, they do it by innovating at the fringe or even outside their ministry or company so that a successful innovation can overtake the old paradigm OR quickly be pulled back if things don’t go so well. Think of difference between the disastrous introduction of New Coke and the successful launch of Coke Zero.

Once launched, New Coke had no graceful way out. Despite a plethora of market studies showing it would succeed. It failed. It was a well-researched “positive change” that the marketplace simply didn’t want.

Compare that with Coke Zero – it just showed up one day on the shelf alongside Diet Coke. If it had lost traction early on it would have simply disappeared. But it got the traction it needed to succeed. People tried it and liked it. It hasn’t yet edged Diet Coke off the shelves. It might one day. But even if it doesn’t, Coca-Cola has two winners in the diet cola category, each with its raving fans: Diet Coke and Coke Zero.

So how do you plan an exit strategy when you are convinced that God has just given you the next great idea? The following questions can help. They are what I recommend leadership teams use to clear out the trail – just in case.

• How are we going to market this in a way that gives us maximum flexibility?
• What can we prepare for a quick and relatively painless exit?
• How are we going to communicate if things go slower than expected?
• How are we going to communicate if we need to shut down the whole thing?
• How are we going to absorb and limit the financial burden if things don’t go well?
• What benchmarks will cause us to pull the plug?
• What benchmarks will cause us to keep going even though things are slow?

The simple fact is: when it comes to any new venture, be it planting a church or starting a new business, launching a new soda or launching a new program, failure is the surest horse to bet on. Preparing for the possibility is one of the most potent ways to guarantee that you can stay in the game long enough to become a serial-innovator.

It’s not the only way. I’ll scatter in some more posts and reflections on serial innovation in the weeks to come. But for now, how well are you planning for failure? How seriously are you taking Murphy and his frustrating law? What place does Genesis 3 have in your theology – and your game plan?

What do you think?

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