With the recent successful docking of the SpaceX Dragon capsule with the International Space Station and the Dragon’s safe return to splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, all eyes are focused on the burgeoning new field of privately-funded space exploration.
In an article in the New York Times, Kenneth Chang writes of the birth of a thriving new entrepreneurial environment in the Mojave desert outside of Los Angeles. The Mojave Air and Space Port, which originally was a Marine air station, is home to a handful of startups seeking their fortune in this marketplace. Although each of the companies in the Mojave ecosystem are probably fascinating innovation studies in and of themselves, what struck me most in thinking about this area was not the technology work of these companies but, rather, a counter-intuitive symbol of innovation that sits at the entrance to the business park where these companies reside: the Roton rocket.
The Roton rocket was the chief product developed by the Rotary Rocket Company, the first enterprise to set up shop at this former airfield in the Mojave desert. The idea behind the Roton rocket was to use helicopter blades and rocket engines to take off and reach orbit. Although the craft took off three times from its launching pad, it never achieved orbit and in 2001 the company ran out of money and shut down its operations. The prototype Roton rocket craft, however, still resides at the Mojave airfield as a symbol of the zeitgeist of the companies in the area. According to the chief executive of the Mojave Air and Space Port, Stuart Witt, “[w]e actually take pride in giving people permission to fail.”
Seeing this amazing piece of failed technology gracing the entry way of a hub of new technology made me think about what other symbols we typically use to represent innovation. Symbolism seems to focus more on success than failure, but as numerous authors in this blog and elsewhere have written, failure may be a more important area of focus for innovation than success. Innovation is rarely the result of incredible insight applied directly to solve a problem resulting in immediate success. Rather, innovators often find themselves trying numerous different approaches while following a hunch, and then learning from those failures to make improvements that lead them to a better outcome, as demonstrated by Edison’s hundreds of failed attempts in developing the light bulb.
Intuitive symbols of innovation are everywhere, such as the ubiquitous corporate wall of patents or a product hall of fame. Likewise, we often associate innovation with the image of Rodin’s The Thinker, which could symbolize the innovator deep in thought, ready to thrust upon the world a great new idea. The Roton rocket sends the opposite message to the entrepreneurs commuting to work each day in the Mojave Desert. The leveraging of failure leads to symbols of innovation that are counter-intuitive, such as an Edsel parked in front of Ford Motor Company’s headquarters or a model of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in front of a civil engineering company.
A great example of a counter-intuitive symbol of innovation comes from Kyle Zimmer, CEO of the nonprofit FirstBook. As relayed in a recent New York Times “Corner Office” interview with Adam Bryant, Zimmer tries to encourage a culture in her company where failure is not feared but, rather, understood as a stepping stone to enhanced creativity. As Zimmer notes,
[t]he culture we line in teaches us to fear failure, and I think that’s a huge mistake. When I look back over the history of our organization, the times we’ve been most creative were a result of the pressure of a failure or near-failure.
Failure forces a team to think differently about how to approach a problem, and Zimmer periodically celebrates a failed idea through what she calls the “Brick Wall Award.” Zimmer gives this Award for “an idea that should have gone really well but ended up crashing into a brick wall.” This symbolizes the fact that an individual or team put a great deal of thought into a new idea and tried different approaches but in the end was unable to attain the objective. This failure should be recognized as a source of learning and a means of triggering creativity.
By highlighting counter-intuitive symbols of innovation, I do not mean to disparage the intuitive symbols that we all have grown so accustomed to seeing in our workplaces and amongst our clients. However, the next time we walk past the wall of patents in an office we should also think about the ideas that were worked on but did not make it to the wall, and recognize the long list of failures that probably accompanied those successful patents.
Kenneth Chang, “A Desert Town on the Way Up … to Space,” New York Times (May 5. 2012). Adam Bryant, “Corner Office: Kyle Zimmer,” New York Times (May 27. 2012).
image credit: avectra.com
Scott Bowden works on Innovation Programs for IBM Global Services.