Lately, I’ve been digging through data and interviews related to the book on Gender and Innovation that I’m working on with Jacqueline Byrd. The bulk of the data comes from 10,000+ respondents to Creatrix, an instrument created by Jacqueline. As for interviews, so far we’ve completed 20 (12 women and 8 men). As unique and amazing as each story is, certain themes come up repeatedly from both male and female innovators.
One of those is their lack of seeing things that don’t work as failure. Mind you, they easily talk about things that go wrong. But while many people talk about learning from failure, they still experience failure as- well, failure. Not so the innovators. We hear it in their voices; they absolutely believe that something that doesn’t work is just part of the process moving them forward to success. It’s just one more experiment from which they can learn. It has no more emotional impact than that.
That’s probably why they are able to take risks. What others perceive as risks, they see as opportunities to learn. Willingness to put oneself on the line is part of innovation. It’s the difference between having a great idea and an innovation. (Thousands of patents are issued every year that are never used, inventions gathering dust because there’s been no personal and/or financial risk taken to act on them.) Innovators rush in where fools fear to tread. One of my favorite stories was told by Chuck House, author of the recently published HP Phenomenon.
During David Packard’s annual review at HP Colorado Springs lab, Chuck showed him work he and his team had done on their display box project. Although they got some enthusiastic comments, the marketing guys said they reviewed it and only 31 people would want a product like it. [No one understood it what it was- so how would they know they want it?] Packard’s response was “he didn’t want to see it in the lab when he came back for the next annual review.” So, Chuck went to his boss saying he could get the project done and into production in less than a year for $300K and team of 4 people. His boss agreed. When Packard returned the following year, the finished project was produced for his approval. Packard said he had told the lab to kill it. Chuck corrected him; what he had actually said was that he didn’t want to see it in the lab. Well, it wasn’t in the lab- it was in production. Ultimately, it was the product that made it possible for everyone to watch Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the moon. Oh- and David Packard personally awarded him the first and only “HP Medal of Defiance”, something Chuck treasures to this day. Now that’s a great innovator story!