All Innovators Work From Failure

without experimentation there is no innovation

The work of innovation – whether you’re doing R&D, creating a breakthrough, pursuing a disruptive strategy or sustaining your core – is not business as usual. It doesn’t work in a straight line, and the more radical the project the more uncertainty there is. This is more evident in domains where lives are at stake; such as medicine.

A recent article on National Geographic tells the story of Katie Stubblefield, the youngest person in the U.S. to get a face transplant. Whether you like medicine or not, the article is well worth the read because the procedure of exchanging your face with someone else is still experimental.

Research into face transplant procedures is not new, over 20 years old. Scientist Maria Siemienow is the person responsible for leading the charge for face transplants. Some fundamental breakthroughs had to happen before we got to this point. For example, she experimented doing face transplants on rats before the first human transplant happened:

Most in the medical world scoffed, Gastman told me, but Siemionow carried on, conducting hundreds of experiments. She tested surgical techniques and suture patterns in anastomosis—the joining of two vessels or nerves—and developed novel immunosuppressive strategies to prevent rejection of the complex variety of tissues that make up the face. She was the first to report successfully transplanting an animal face when she attached a new face to a rat. The rats were startling to look at, with patchwork faces of light and dark fur. Siemionow named one white rat Zorro, for its masklike appearance after she’d transplanted a brown face onto it.

Many organizations, and people, suffer from analysis paralysis. They think of all the ways an idea will fail, but don’t think of ways to overcome the challenges. Their analysis serves to kill ideas before they have a chance.

Innovators are different. All innovators work from failure. Anticipating potential problems and devising solutions. Not planning forward, but backwards. Thinking through all the possible ways everything could fail, and devising contingencies for those potential outcomes.

And if those contingencies don’t work, they’ve learned something and use that to try something else. Try, learn, repeat. There is no innovation without experimentation. Katie Stubblefield wouldn’t have been able to get a new face without the long-term commitment to experiment with new approaches by scientists, doctors and institutions.