How to quickly find those 10,000 ways that won’t work

There are a lot of negatives to failure. We learn to fear failure beginning at grade school and it only gets worse from there. In the corporate world, the stakes can be very high: a failed program can ruin quarterly revenues and people’s careers.

Yet, as Thomas Edison understood, innovation depends on failure: “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”. The faster you learn and adjust, the better you innovate. The key is to stack the odds in your favor – reduce the cycle time for learning while mitigating the consequences of failure.

An important step is crowdsourcing. All organizations have a rich history of quiet failures carefully hidden from view – precious gems for innovators. When you face a novel challenge or launch a new program, ask for ideas from others. By putting your question out to a wide and varied audience, you will access ideas from people with different backgrounds, experiences, and cultures. If you structure the discussion properly, the crowd will share with you a rich set of lessons drawn from past experience.

Crowdsourcing for ideas may sound cumbersome, but it doesn’t have to be. With modern software and process design, you can leverage all those perspectives, and gain access to their “experiments” in a very quick timeframe and with little cost. You may want to reach out only to your department; or your entire company; or your external partners; or perhaps the entire world. The farther from our own desk or lab you’re able to pose the question, the better and faster you’ll innovate.

Crowdsourcing, of course, is not a panacea. The knowledge and experience of a diverse audience can reduce cycle time and risk, but someone must assemble the pieces into a workable plan or solution. Collaboration is key: the best innovation emerge when you build on the crowd’s ideas and integrate them with your own.

In the end, you may be left with a dead end rather than a successful innovation. That’s okay – better to learn the truth early, and use the latest “failure” to focus on other, more productive areas.

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