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What Google and Apple Teach About Innovation and Risk Taking Culture

By Jeffrey Tobias

A recent interview with a senior Google executive got us thinking about failure and the culture of risk taking.

Failure is an especially uncomfortable concept for most of us to think about. It’s right up there with death and taxes – and just as inevitable. And because failure makes us uncomfortable we tend not to talk about it, have negative feelings to it or vainly hope no one notices when it happens. But that ignores failure as an asset.

It’s also important to distinguish failure from incompetence.

A project that aims to an end, is backed by insight, data and your best minds and implemented deliberately but fails to gain traction, is not the same as one that had no clue about its genesis and was simply executed poorly. Traditional organisations can learn a lot from digital natives about failure, says Jon Kaplan, Google’s Vice President of US Sales and Operations.

“One of the hallmarks of Google is how do we learn from failures that happen in this test-and-learn culture?” says Kaplan. He says Google “celebrates failure” and points to Google Buzz, the social network that broke itself against Facebook’s impregnable wall, as an example of failing for the right reasons.

“It was not a successful product in the social ecosystem but we used that experience to understand how we would iterate for Google Plus in a much better way.”

Google has missed as often as it has hit the target – for every Google Docs, there’s a Google Buzz. And even phenomenally successful teams, such as the Australians who invented Google Maps, can fail at bat. Their Wave collaboration product sank quietly a year after it was launched having failed to gain an audience.

But as Kaplan says, even such ‘failures’ are useful: “(We) have many examples of failure … and of using that information to improve the product”.

So the question becomes, how do you inculcate a risk-taking culture needed to brave potential failure?

It’s tricky to contemplate failure because organisations are geared to success whether that’s the completion of a successful project, earnings or another metric. There just aren’t many positive ways to measure failure. But you can start by redefining what failure means:

Every step closer – It’s a learning experience on the way to greater success. Each failure puts the organisation closer to its goal (the notion of “fail fast, fail often, fail early” embraced by start-ups).

Message for success – Emphasise in communications, not the failure itself but the risk appetite and ambitions involved.

Look to the future – What has the organisation gained from failure? Are there metrics or lessons to be applied to other initiatives (remember, “failures” such as 3M’s Post-it revolutionised the world).

Former Apple evangelist turned venture capitalist Guy Kawasaki holds up the company’s late co-founder Steve Jobs as someone who embraced his mistakes. Kawasaki points out that had Jobs not changed tack often during his career, it would have been the equivalent of clutching failure from the jaws of success.

“Many think that changing your mind is a sign of stupidity, weakness or cowardice. Steve Jobs taught me that changing your mind is a sign of intelligence and courage,” Kawasaki says.

He relates the story of how Jobs intended the iPhone to be a closed system but later changed his mind to allow open innovation through a developer program and App Store.

“He completely reversed himself. That was part of the genius of Steve Jobs: when he found out he was wrong he didn’t hesitate to change his mind and change the course of Apple; it takes a lot of courage and intellectual power.”

Like Steve Jobs, CEOs and senior executives need to set a culture that encourages experimentation and an appetite for risk while rewarding the vision and courage of those who fall short. Failure is not an option; it’s a prerequisite for success. A Culture of risk-taking is critical to developing true successful innovation in any organisation.

Are you ready to start your own in-house innovation program but uncertain where to start? The next step in overcoming a fear of failure is to call us on (02) 9388 9925 or email and we’ll show you how to get your organisation’s culture on the right path.


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