Creative managers know that if you approach a challenge knowing nothing, you’re likely to come up with a solution that is different and original.
Most of us are brought up to believe that failure should be avoided and that it is the opposite of success. Certainly, that’s what the dictionary definition says. But in the world’s most innovative companies, failure is seen as a valued and necessary step. In addition, coming to work “stupid” and avoiding falling in love with ideas are other counterintuitive recommendations top creative companies are embracing to achieve success through innovation.
Dealing well with failure is a key ingredient in setting up a culture for innovation. However, many organisations are naturally risk averse and want to innovate without taking risks, which is largely impossible. Companies that are successful innovators recognise that risk, and failure, are inevitable parts of the equation.
“One of the things we try to do is celebrate failure”, the director of global innovation pipeline management at the Coca-Cola Amatil, John Hodgson, says of his company’s attitude to risk.
“To be innovative, you have to be taking risks. You have to be out there on the edge and you’re going to fail. And you’re going to fail more often than not”.
It’s easy for companies to agree with these sentiments but actually putting them into practice is a whole other story.
Hodgson describes the situation where a project team at the company had been working on a very specific technical brief. It had pursued this brief in a number of directions over a significant period of time.
“After several years, the team came back and said, ‘We don’t find any feasible way of doing this’,” he says. “They said they were going to stop the project until there was some kind of technological breakthrough. And it was a positive experience because they no longer had to bash their heads against the wall and not make any progress. They also received recognition from the leadership team saying it was a valiant effort.
“Many companies sweep their mistakes under the rug but there’s so much to learn from mistakes. Sometimes the best thing to do is not launch something.”
Come to work ‘stupid’
Advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy probably is one of the most creative in the world. It was behind the now famous Old Spice campaign and created the Nike “Just do it” slogan and advertisements. A philosophy that is at the forefront of its approach to innovation is to “walk in stupid”.
“There’s a poster in the London office with a man holding a brief case saying ‘walk in stupid every morning’,” the head of strategic planning Wieden + Kennedy in New York, Stuart Smith, says.
“The key to walking in stupid is not to assume that you know anything. If you come into a project and act dumb, you’re much more likely to get to a new solution. Whereas if you come in as if you know everything, then you’ll be constrained by what convention is and what you already know”.
An example of walking in stupid is evidence in Wieden + Kennedy’s approach to assembling the team that worked on the Honda advertising campaigns of the early to mid-2000s, “Cog” was one of the first campaigns created by this team, which follows a cascading chain of car parts, and became one of the most awarded and successful advertisements of all time.
Normally, within a team assembled to work on an advertising campaign, experience working on ads in that industry is a necessity. But the opposite was true for the Honda team. “None of us on that team knew anything about car advertising,” says Smith who worked as the strategist on the account. “The team didn’t even like cars. We were all naturally stupid in that regard but it genuinely led to us thinking about the advertising for that brand in a very different way which was unlike anything the car industry had seen at the time.”
Learning, not performance
When the time comes to implement an idea, most companies will have a set of performance objectives- which are often determined by reference to revenue and profit- that the idea in question needs to achieve.
The company will launch the idea and track how well it performs in the market, whether it be for a full-scale implementation or just a pilot.
At Australian white goods maker Whirlpool, before innovation projects are introduced into the product development process, learning objectives are set. And before launching anything, the relevant team will first run a series of experiments to test their learning objectives or hypotheses. “We’ll set a learning agenda, run the experiment and then learn from it,” the global director of innovation at Whirlpool, explains Moises Norena. “And we always try to learn in chunks. We recognise that you can’t learn everything you need to learn in just one experiment. And the reality is that you’ll often learn about other things you didn’t plan on learning about”.
Teams at Whirlpool are encouraged to identify the most important things they want to learn at the start of any experiment.
“We ask what specifically we’re going to learn from this, conduct the experiment and dissect what we’ve learnt separately,” Norena says. “Learning objectives ran range from ‘Is this a compelling consumer solution?’ through to ‘is this idea scalable?”.
Pursue your opportunities, not your ideas
A big problem with the way a lot of organisations approach innovation is that they will begin the process with the generation of ideas. Someone will have an idea, become passionate about it and try to get it off the ground.
But there are a few problems with this approach. First, how do you evaluate the idea when you don’t even know what problem it is solving. Second, you risk becoming too attached to the idea and not being able to take constructive feedback to improve it.
In addition, if you get too attached to ideas, you might make bad decision when it comes time to kill them or change them significantly. Companies such as the Coca-Cola Amatil encourage employees to become excited about opportunities rather than about ideas. For example, teams may be encouraged to get excited about the possibility of cutting an organisation’s carbon footprint by half, as opposed to specific ideas that could deliver on that opportunity.
If you can find exciting opportunities and get attached to meeting these, then the ideas will flow. So rather than start with an idea, begin with an opportunity that you feel passionate about pursuing.