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The Creative Paradox: Failure IS an option

Johnny Molson


Celebrate the person who tried and skinned her knees.


“Innovate!” goes the battle cry. “We need to get us some of that innovation.” As if, perhaps, there’s an aisle at Office Max where one can go pick some up.

We admire the lore of Steve Jobs and ache for one-tenth of a Mark Zuckerberg to show up in our staffs. “We need a ping-pong table in the office… and maybe if we all sit in beanbag chairs. Be more open. Have brainstorming meetings. Trust falls!”

Alas, we remain stuck.

Mick Torbay, one of my partners from Toronto, eloquently explains how a committee will inherently draw you to the middle. You may start with a grand idea, but a room full of well-intentioned stakeholders will sanitize the rough edges until there’s nothing interesting left.

Enter my paradox of business creativity. A business that is doing well and has the resources to innovate will say “hey, if it ain’t broke…” you know the rest. A business that is struggling and in dire need of a creative solution will say “we can’t chance it, stick to the basics.” We are stuck between “it’s working, leave it alone” and “it’s too scary.” So, if not now… when?

Understand (and embrace) that successful ideas only come from failure. You very well may blow most ideas you try. Steve Jobs certainly did. Richard Branson encourages us to not be “embarrassed by your failures, learn from them and start again.”

“Success represents the 1% of your work which results from the 99% that is called failure” -Soichiro Honda

Embrace failure. Turn your company culture upside down, and tell your employees that they will be held accountable if they DO NOT fail. Celebrate the person who tried and skinned her knees. Keep a log of attempts that were made, and failed. Then give those failures a quarter-turn and try again.

The biggest battle you will have is in yourself. The little gremlin in your brain that insists that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The tiny little bully inside that tells you that you are too weak to try. Fight that little S.O.B. and smile every time you screw up.

Gene Kranz titled his autobiography “Failure Is Not an Option,” but it seems NASA’s history is full of failures and trying again. Even the rescuing of Apollo 13 was filled with rocket scientists making mistake upon mistake until a solution was found.

Perhaps hidden in Kranz’s admonition is a call to abolish the word “failure.” Find the “10,000 ways it won’t work” that Thomas Edison spoke of. Yes, it’s a constant game of Jenga. Cheer when the blocks fall and learn how to stack them better.

Take the road less traveled by and that will make all the difference.

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