There’s been quite a lot of debate in recent years related to the need to take risks and have the courage to innovate. There is a concerted push for us to escape entrenched thinking about incremental change and take more plunges into the unknown in order to really differentiate and succeed. Coupled with this view is the idea that we need to embrace failure and, in fact, wear it as some sort of badge of honour. This seems especially popular among the budding entrepreneurial set. Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way.
“I've lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” – Mark Twain
The issue I have with this viewpoint is two-fold. Firstly, we need to differentiate between outright failure and planned learning. Recognising that you don’t have all the answers right now and that you will need to learn stuff on the way is essential. Learning from mistakes is great. Learning from someone else’s mistakes even better. Anticipating this and planning for it is not planning to fail – it is planning to succeed. Secondly we need to dismiss the idea that risk is inherently a good thing. Try approaching an investor with a “we don’t have a plan, we’re just going to wing it” approach and see how far that gets you. Risks (and opportunities) need to be anticipated and they need to be managed to maximize your chances of experiencing the outcome that you hope for.
What this debate needs is to more clearly separate the idea of getting out of your comfort zone from that of just taking a blind leap of faith. The Lean Startup movement, amongst other methodologies, makes every attempt to minimise risk through a rigorous process of hypothesis testing that tries to break the underlying nascent business model. Is there a problem that is worth solving? Do you have a viable solution? Is it feasible? This is the age-old scientific method in action. At its core it is simply a case of starting with a clear and coherent objective and designing an implementation around that. If you don’t yet have important parts of the puzzle then you need to do just enough to fill-in the gaps and be prepared to either abandon the idea or change tack (pivot) to capitalise on what you’ve learned. Adaptation is not failure. Ignoring what you’ve learned and resisting necessary change would be.
This is not about being courageous. It is about being focused. It is not about taking unnecessary risks. It is about having an end-goal and doing your best to get there without wasting resources or simply going off the rails. If you approach innovation in this way then you’ll have a high chance of success without any need for heroics.
“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.” – Michelangelo