Back in the early days of the space race, it seemed as though our rockets were always blowing up. It turned out that many of the rockets launched by the Soviets had also blown up. But unlike the U.S., which shared information about rocket launches with the public, the Soviets didn’t broadcast the results of their tests. As a result, most people never knew about their failures.
As anyone who has ever experimented with rockets knows, many launches end in failure. In rocketry, failure is accepted as a normal phase of the innovation process. You pick up the pieces, analyze what went wrong, and try to fix it. Most important, you keep testing.
Last week, we caught up with legendary marketing guru Don Peppers, the co-author with Martha Rogers of The One to One Future and Extreme Trust. Don has a bachelor’s degree in astronautical engineering from the U.S. Air Force Academy, so technically, he is a rocket scientist. His science background, combined with his graduate degree in public affairs from Princeton, gives him a truly unique perspective on the importance of continuous innovation in the modern economy.
“Great companies are always testing,” says Don. “When you test, you invariably have hits and misses. Many of your hits are random. That’s normal. So instead of focusing solely on outcomes, you should focus on inputs. Did you ask the right questions? Were the tests set up properly? Were there hidden biases? Then you’re learning and moving forward, whether the end result was a hit or miss.”
In other words, sometimes the questions can be more important than the answers. This is a critical takeaway for innovation leaders. The more you focus on results, the more likely you are to miss the big picture. The key trends are more important, and they should be the focus of your attention.
Reducing innovation to a simple binary process of separating winning ideas from losing ideas is unlikely to produce genuinely useful results over the long term. Innovation is an iterative process, and each step leads to another. Sometimes, you’re not exactly sure where you’re going – and that’s okay, as long as you’re learning and continually improving.
“Ten years ago, if you had told people that Nokia would become the world’s largest maker of cameras, nobody would have believed you,” says Don. “Nokia kept innovating and kept improving the mobile phone. The camera in the phone was one element in a continual series of innovations, which explains why Nokia is the leading manufacturer of cameras in the world today.”
As history shows, even a string of failures can lead to success. We won the space race by acknowledging our failures early and using the knowledge that we gained from our failures to develop systems and technologies that were significantly more advanced than those of our primary competitor.