Failure and Innovation
It was Woody Allen who said, “if you're not failing every now and again, it's a sign you're not doing anything very innovative.” And he clearly knew his stuff. As a young writer for Sid Caesar, he, along with fellow comedy cohorts Larry Gelbart (of MASH fame), Mel Brooks, and Carl Reiner – to name just a few - created the most innovative environment in the Golden Age of Television.
In theory, the Internet, too, was supposed to be a model of innovation. But in reality, we instead find more and more Internet businesses content to pursue that “most sincere” form of flattery better known as imitation.
What drives the bus for most start ups is funding, and not innovation. To get funded, business planners incorporate carefully crafted language that appears innovative yet purposely doesn’t stray very far from models that have already been funded.
After YouTube, how many video portals received significant funding? In the ad network heyday, how many such networks got funded? Lead generation businesses? Blogs? The list of copycat companies that were funded is a mile long. The adage that nothing succeeds like success may be the road to funding, but it’s certainly not the road to innovation.
Ironically, it may be the exact opposite of success that leads to innovation; namely failure. Newton’s view of physics gave way to a better model only after it failed to account for various phenomena. In other words, its failure to describe light and subatomic reality led to innovation.
Walt Disney reportedly declared bankruptcy twice before he became a successful innovator. Nobody likes failure but the aphorism that “every dark cloud has a silver lining” contains great truth if we can “successfully” reorient ourselves to failure. We often fear failure so much that we refuse to acknowledge it, let alone learn from it.
If we don’t recognize and embrace failure, we’ll be condemned to repeat it over and over. Case in point: Our government budgeting process is a failed enterprise, but until those responsible acknowledge its failure, we will remain saddled with the same flawed premises and failed processes that got us here.
And whereas failure in the public sphere may seem glaring and obvious, it is less apparent in the private sector, where self-interest trumps objective scrutiny. Fearing the unknown, and with safety in numbers, online marketing professionals would rather cling to an ad model that clearly fails on so many levels. Indeed, our industry’s practiced ability to turn a blind eye to failure would be the envy of any government bureaucrat.
The click-through rate for online display advertising has suffered a precipitous slide from 5% to less than .1% in just ten years, yet how many companies still rely on this failed metric? Many herald pre-roll video commercials as the salvation for online advertising. But pre-roll proponents are exhibiting the same myopia as their banner brethren. They can’t see the failure forest for the self-interest trees.
The sooner we admit failure, and the sooner we begin to deliberately discard what doesn’t work, the sooner we we’ll find ourselves on the road to innovation. It takes courage to look failure in the eye. The key is not to be the first one to blink.