Successful Innovation Programs Require a Culture of Learning

By: Ben Savage

“I’m a Student, Jim…. Not a Doctor!” You cannot innovate if you cannot learn

MythBusters: Failure is Always an Option
To truly innovate, to develop new things and not just incrementally improve existing products, you have to try things that may not, or should not, work. You have to think like a scientist…or maybe even a MythBuster. Scientists view failure differently. They are comfortable with the idea of conducting an experiment, observing the results and learning from them.

This will create situations where your experiment fails and achieves an outcome that isn’t what you desired. This can be a good thing. Post-it® Notes were the result of a failed experiment.

But for your innovation program to succeed, you must first build a culture that can handle and support this mindset.


You’ll Find the Right One Among the Wrong Ones
If a company does view failure as a negative, it’s probably because they do not have a culture of learning. To do this, teams must have the time and resources available to learn from the industry, observe end users and to test and share new concepts. All of them will not work. But quickly testing many small concepts early on is the fastest, simplest and least expensive way to identify the “right” one.

A culture of learning also requires the right mindset for management. They should be close enough to guide your team through the key needs of the business and to keep them focused. But they also need to resist providing too much prescription within this guidance.


If you are really going to do new things, and not speak in buzzwords or HBR articles,
think about how you can change your culture.


MinionsThink of the culture-building process like raising a child. You have to provide room to learn by doing and experimenting. You cannot do it all for your team. Though I do advise watching them around electricity….engineers don’t react well to the unintentional application of excessive voltage.

It’s worth pointing out that there is one kind of failure that is bad: having the same failure twice. Peter Drucker said: “If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.” Having the same failure twice means you tried again using the exact. same. approach. It means you aren’t learning from your tests.

Startups may consider the discussion of failure passé. And some companies may view it as a negative. If you are really going to do new things, and not speak in buzzwords or HBR articles, think about how you can change your culture to support a team of students and scientists.




About the Author

  • Ben SavageChief Innovation OfficerApex Supply Chain Technologies
    Ben Savage has more than 10 years of experience in the consulting, supply chain management and technology fields. When not quoting Peter Drucker, he is focused on product development and process improvement at Apex Supply Chain Technologies as its Chief Innovation Officer. Savage holds a Master of Business Administration from the University of California, Los Angeles and an MBA from the National University of Singapore.