If at first you don’t succeed…

by John Bessant

If at first you don't succeed...

What do Mickey Mouse, vacuum cleaners, air travel and light-bulbs have in common? More than you’d think , especially if you look to the originators of those widely different things. All of their innovators spent a great deal of time being knocked back, living through failures and generally struggling to take their ideas forward. None of them have a history of instant success- it was hard work and persistence.

Walt Disney beavered away for several years at the laborious process of animating cartoons before his first major success with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Thomas Edison is famous for his experiences in trying to find the correct filament to enable his idea for an incandescent light bulb to happen. When a reporter asked, “How did it feel to fail 1000 times?” Edison replied, “I didn’t fail 1000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1000 steps.”

The Wright Brothers didn’t just put an aeroplane in the air – their 1903 flight at Kittyhawk Sands was the product of five years of experimentation and failure with different designs for gliders and flying machines.

And James Dyson famously worked painstakingly over five years to produce 5127 prototypes before he found his way to the right design for his bag-less vacuum cleaner.

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Innovation isn’t easy – something which Drew Houston, founder of Dropbox, clearly understands. ‘It is a very gruelling experience….one day you are on the top of the world..the next day there is a huge bug and the site is down and you are tearing your hair out….’. It’s not a magic light-bulb moment but rather a long struggle to try and move that gleam in the eye /flash of inspiration towards something which actually creates value.

So one of the key skills in managing innovation , whether at a personal level or embedded in the way our organizations handle the challenge is going to be perseverance. Research is pretty clear on this– for example, Teresa Amabile’s widely used model of creativity includes skills such as the ability to ‘concentrate effort for long periods of time’ and to ‘persever[e] in the face of frustration’. And practitioners get it too – Albert Einstein for example, who famously said ‘ It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.’

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It’s pretty clear why we need perseverance – most innovation is about failure. It is all about trying things out but the likelihood is that most experiments will fail. And as we’ve come to realise, failure in itself isn’t a problem – it offers a rich learning opportunity.

But not everyone has the stamina to keep going in the face of failure. Thomas Edison again: “Nearly every man who develops an idea works at it up to the point where it looks impossible, and then gets discouraged. That’s not the place to become discouraged.” Psychologist Adam Grant has made a detailed study of what he calls ‘creative originals’ – people in different fields who are known for the novelty and usefulness of their work. He observes that:

‘… the greatest originals are the ones who fail the most, because they’re the ones who try the most..’

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So what is it that helps some people keep going – to work, as the title of James Dyson’s autobiography has it, ‘against the odds’? Angela Duckworth’s research has made a detailed study of what she calls ‘grit’ – the tendency to sustain interest in and effort towards very long-term goals. Innovation can look easy with hindsight but the reality is that it is like that image of a swan; gracefully gliding across the water but beneath the surface there’s some pretty frantic paddling going on!

Part of the problem is that when things get difficult we often revise our plans downwards, start giving up and going for a simpler option. Researchers at Northwestern University found that ‘…. when creative challenges start to feel difficult, most people lower their expectations about the performance benefits of perseverance, and consequently, underestimate their own ability to generate ideas’

That’s when we need willpower. It provides the energy, the fuel, the ability to enable persistence through the necessary iterations to build a good idea and to deal with the frustration that accompanies this. It’s something which can be developed – Duckworth’s ‘grit’ has a lot in common with the self-belief idea pioneered by Albert Bandura in his model of ‘self-efficacy’. The more we have the confidence, the belief that we can achieve something, the more we are likely to achieve it.

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It might sound like a grown up version of ‘The little engine who could’ story – but there are plenty of examples to remind us of its relevance. Like Ralph Townes, father of the laser who described being told by his bosses (both Nobel Laureates) early on in his career that his research direction was flawed.

‘I knew that the chances for quick success were somewhat marginal, but that the physics undergirding the concept was sound and the numbers promising. …….. I simply told them that I thought it had a reasonable chance and that I would continue.’

Or Jack White of the White Stripes who describes coming up with an idea for a riff.

“We were at a sound check in Australia and I played it. I thought, “This is really cool,” and my friend came up and I said, “What do you think of this?’”

He said, “Eh, it’s all right.”

It’s almost great when people say that, ’cause it almost makes you defensive… you think, “No, there’s something to this. You don’t see it yet. It’s gonna get there.”

So I kept at it……’

The riff in question formed the basis for ‘7 Nation Army’, not only a huge recording success for White but also a theme adopted by sports crowds and election rallies around the world. In many ways he had the same determination as another young musician a generation earlier. What might have happened if one Elvis Aaron Presley had taken at face value the advice offered by Jimmy Denny, then manager of Nashville’s Gran Ole Opry who fired him after one show saying “You ain’tgoin’ nowhere, son. You ought to go back to drivin’ a truck.”


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Innovation comes from perseverance – but it isn’t just a matter of having the guts and the ‘grit’ to keep driving through. There’s also evidence that keeping going in pursuit of novel ideas can actually open up new ways of thinking. Researchers at Amsterdam University found that participants began to search more widely in their problem solving behaviour if they experienced constraints and barriers but were pressed to keep going.

(You can try this out for yourself with this simple task. An alien flying saucer arrives and the door opens – what comes out? Try and draw a picture of this creature from outer space).

Research shows that when given a task of this kind most people come up with something which builds on concepts we already know – variations on earthly birds or animals. It suggests that when trying to be creative most people follow the ‘‘path of least resistance’’: they will generate a few highly accessible ideas with the least effort possible and then stop. But if people are pushed or stimulated to explore further they find other more creative possibilities.

Of course when trying to break through to a new type of solution it helps to have a nudge or two along the way. Linking the two – focused perseverance and stimulation forms the basis of what is sometimes called the ‘dual pathway’ model of creativity. And it seems to work – researchers found that persistence was linked to stimulating ‘cognitive flexibility’ – the ability to think in novel directions.

Persistence also matters in terms of ‘creative productivity’ – the more ideas we produce the better our chances of finding the good ones and holding on to them. Research has found links between persistence in grinding out ideas and creative originality. Generating volume of ideas breeds variety and originality – a kind of Darwinian approach which offers an interesting variation on the famous fairy tale of the Brothers Grimm – you need to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your fairy-tale prince! The songwriter Ed Sheeran links his success to the same roots as Thomas Edison – a great song is not just a lucky product but something which arises out of the discipline of trying to write a song every day. As he explained in a radio interview, there’s a high failure rate in his innovation world. So I write a bunch and scrap a bunch.”

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What does all of this mean for innovation managers? Some things to think about……

  • Provide a supportive climate for innovation – help individuals develop their resilience skills and reward and recognise this
  • Create an enabling infrastructure – make it easy to offer ideas, share them, allow for constructive criticism
  • Give projects time and space to develop – success is rarely instantaneous. Recent research suggests organizations would often fail the ‘marshmallow test’ – the famous study of children looking for instant gratification rather than having the patience to wait for something better.
  • Manage innovation as a learning system. Toyota’s understanding of the trial and error learning loops of their kaizen system have helped make it the world’s most productive car-maker. Google’s philosophy is all about perpetual beta – not aiming for perfection but allowing for learning from its innovation. And IDEO, the successful design consultancy, has a slogan which underlines the key role learning through prototyping plays in their projects – ‘fail often, to succeed sooner’!
  • Have clear and structured rules of the game – stage gates are important pieces of the risk management puzzle. Having effective filters in the innovation funnel helps strengthen the ideas that will create value but there’s a risk of turning people off if their idea is rejected without a clear understanding of why.
  • Curate the knowledge base – even if an idea isn’t working right now there may be something useful in it which might have value elsewhere or in the future.

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Image credit: Disney Dan via YouTube

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John Bessantjohn-bessant_400x400 has been active in research, teaching, and consulting in technology and innovation management for over 25 years. Today, he is Chair in Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and Research Director, at Exeter University. In 2003, he was awarded a Fellowship with the Advanced Institute for Management Research and was also elected a Fellow of the British Academy of Management. He has acted as advisor to various national governments and international bodies including the United Nations, The World Bank, and the OECD. John has authored many books including Managing innovation and High Involvement Innovation (Wiley). Follow @johnbessant

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