Learning from innovation failures in a motivating way

“Let´s celebrate our failures to learn what success is all about”, was one of my learnings from the Finish Innovation Bootcamp in Jyväskyla in Finland. Colleagues of mine from Business Arena Ltd. invited me and it was  great fun and a learning intensive experience working together with 11 colleagues from economic and employment agencies,  Innovation and start-up centres at Universities and network facilitators. The „Camp“ provided a great open  platform to together connect the dots of failures and successes in a very action-driven way.

Apart from additional impressions, (see other article) I realized again that in a group of open-minded and creative people, even short comments can create a butterfly effect and great common ideas. Often the initial stages of such conversations pop up at moments of relaxation and within a nice atmosphere.

After we worked the whole day for better innovative solutions to bring products from the laboratory to the market we were sitting in the evening together in the dining room of the old and cosy seminar wood house with a nice wine. Relaxed from the Evening-Sauna and after a nice dinner, somebody of the participants reflected loudly and humorously about his hope for concrete outcomes the upcoming  day, using the phrase from Samuel Beckett: „Ever try, ever fail, no matter, Try again. Fail again. Fail better“. This encouraged another person to tell the story of the “Mexican Day of the Dead” where Mexicans celebrate their lost souls through humorous,  life-affirming and grateful rituals. One comment and joint laugh succeeded the other and the result was finally a list of concrete opportunities for action that use failures as the basis for the search of innovative solutions:

  • Cemetery of innovative but not realized business ideas”: Putting some tombstones in front of your University, research or start-up center and publicly bury the inventions that did not make it to the market. This is done in a humorous as well as motivating way to encourage a reflection about opportunities for a stronger market orientation
  • Flower Garden of Failures” e.g. at business parks in which everybody can leave stones between flowers to appreciate the failures that contributed to career and personal development
  • Perspective-Workshop to encourage future failures: The basic idea of this short workshop (around 1 hour) could entail questions that can be discussed quickly using e.g. the Mesocard rules e.g. in a meeting of an innovation agency, a business, a university for applied science, a research incubator or in any other network. Examples of questions could be: “Where do we need to make more failures to increase our learning (or to improve our market orientation)?”, “What did we not do, but always wanted to try?”,  etc. .

We could have come up with more ideas and maybe you have others that pop up in your mind (Please send them under „Comentaries“!) Often such  ideas can encourage more deeper and collective learning processes as long as they are really implemented and followed up.

In our daily work on economic and innovation promotion most of the stakeholders rarely like to exchange about their failures. It became rather a pattern to hide important failures due to many reasons and wrong incentives. On the other hand we all know that the promotion of structural and economic change requires early movers and drivers who are taking failures as a chance for change. This first of all requires a positive and optimistic attitude about change and the willingness towards concrete action. At the innovation bootcamp I felt this willingness very strongly! Together with Business Arena the Innovation Centre representative from the University of Jyväskyla wants to realize the „Cemetery of failed innovation ideas“ already in the next 2 weeks.  This is a dynamic that can result from just a class of wine with dedicated persons!

The challenge of “Walking the Talk” in economic development

Some time ago I saw this investment advertisement for Bahrain in „The Economist“: Today –Tomorrow-five years time – the long term prospects: How is your vision? An intelligent way to attract attention. We often wish to have a clear strategy for our life, our job, business or region. We estimate that having a strategy or a vision is already half of its implementation. Reality demonstrates then very quickly: “Walking the talk” is something totally different.

In our work in the promotion of territorial economic development we are often asked to support localities, regions and sectors in the development of strategies during structural change processes. In the EU as well as in many developing countries it is very common to develop strategy plans for the economic development of cities, branches, clusters and regions. Often these development strategies are governed by public drivers (e.g. municipalities, regional agencies, etc,) who invite businesses and civil society representatives to certain meetings. In good cases these strategy plans align the understanding of the stakeholders on future steps, clarify certain responsibilities und budget priorities. In many cases they rather end up as dust-carrying papers in cupboards.

Why is this the case? The emphasis is often on the design of the strategy, less so on the implementation process. Especially the latter is the challenge that does not get sufficient attention in general!

I like the metaphor David Masters used in his book „Strategy and the fat smoker“ where he explains along the example of a fat smoker and new year resolutions the key challenge of strategies. „We often, in our individual life as well as in organisations (and territories), know what should be done. We just don´t do it!“

Instead of focusing on the implementation of small strategic actions especially public planners and politicians prefer to set up structures to control the implementation of a strategy (e.g. set-up of a  responsible department, a new agency, or a round table who should govern the further process). This often takes time, reduces motivation and belief in the implementation of the economic stakeholders.

Regardless of which level (individual, organisational or territorial): if you want to walk the talk, you need to give up some traditional ways of doing things. Real implementation of new activities require always also the change of habits!

Now, curing a region in economic decline is definitely more difficult than curing a fat smoker or curing a business/organisation in crisis. The smoker and every individual has the power to govern himself, a business has a certain hierarchical structure to force certain changes. In a region many individuals, interest groups, businesses and politicians have to find an alignment of direction. It requires the clarification of public and private responsibilities for economic development as concretely as possible and to agree on the change of traditional behaviors beyond individual-, business- or organisational interests.

This is seldom done. Rather stakeholders define regional visions, objectives and goals  often without considering the necessity to change traditional behavior patterns. In our daily work and in many economic development projects we often see a lack of interventions (and sometimes even a lack of interest) that  tackle  the human and organisational bottlenecks, hesitancies  and lack of willingness for change. It is the change of habits which has to been focused on instead of developing mainly structures.

And an additional aspect is essential. We all know it but often do not consider it sufficiently: Every economic change requires first of all a clear intrinsic motivation of a group of drivers in the region. Like Masters says:“ Strategic change is not a technique, but a will.The reality is that often projects work with project managers as well as partners who lack this intrinsic motivation. That´s why we in mesopartner prefer to start with clearly motivated stakeholders and the initiation of small business and development initiatives. It is not the excellence but the intrinsic willingness to improve, that matters. If the initiative fails, all the parties know that it was their responsibility and lack of willingness to promote the change. This also can be an important learning process.

To promote economic development, we  need to better understand how to reach people, their behaviour, and their habits. We need to reflect much  more  with the partners where and how we and they can “walk the talk”. Scenario writing can help to reflect on this readiness (see example above). Then visions can also create real change through concrete action.

Writing teaches you to think!

„Some people need to think before they talk!“, was a phrase my  father always used to say when he met some blatherers. He was right! On the other hand we know from our own daily work that often the most creative persons in territorial economic development are not the ones who speak the loudest but who are very quiet. It is not easy to get their ideas out of their mouth.

There is another teacher in my life I learned from a lot. Our passed partner Jörg Meyer-Stamer always said: „Writing teaches you to think!“. It is in this way  I also understand my articles on this site.

With this blog I would like to encourage myself to find the right equilibrium between

  • reflecting on my own thoughts on territorial economic development while writing them down
  • expressing and exchanging on them while they are still fresh

This provides me with the opportunity to bounce ideas with others, to enrich these thoughts and encourage learning loops not only with myself but also with an outside world.

I am looking forward to this kind of double-loop learning process!

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