Thursday, January 21, 2016

Failure is Part of Success

At the end of each semester, participants in our STARTUP course present “lessons learned” about the commercial viability of their innovation ideas as well as what they’ve learned about the process of innovation and entrepreneurship. One lesson that our STEM students in particular have mentioned frequently is the power of failing fast and “being wrong” on the path to success.  “Being wrong” is NOT something most of us find comfortable. For STEM researchers who typically work on technical problems subject to the laws of science and math (i.e., there is only ONE right answer and many wrong alternatives), it can be especially uncomfortable.  

So why does getting comfortable with being wrong help us become more successful entrepreneurs?

This shift in mindset is critical because there are many variables beyond technical feasibility that affect the commercial success of a product or service.  Market risk is often more problematic than technical risk, and the search for a viable business model is the real dilemma faced by entrepreneurs.  Dilemmas, unlike problems rooted in the application of science and math, do not have a single “right” answer.  There typically are multiple options or approaches, each with its own pros and cons.  

Additionally, ALL human beings are subject to implicit biases that develop from our unique life experiences and are completely unconscious to us.  These pervasive and robust biases cause us to see the world as WE are, not as it is.  We naturally make assumptions and jump to conclusions that often are wrong.  As innovators and entrepreneurs, our implicit bias influences our perspectives about what customers really need or want, the true value of our technology, the relative importance of various stakeholders, etc.  While we may have some insight into these non-technical arenas, some if not many of our initial assumptions and beliefs are inevitably wrong since “value” is in the eye of the beholder.  This is not “bad,” it just IS.  And as a result we must manage ourselves and the innovation process accordingly.
Navigating the innovation and entrepreneurship process requires a pseudo scientific method:  we form hypotheses or assumptions about the problem that matters, the customer needs, the market viability, etc. and then systematically test them to either validate or modify our assumptions.  It is inevitable that many of our assumptions will be wrong and we will need to learn and adapt—often many times on the path to success.  The big “aha!” for many of our aspiring STEM innovators is that failure is not the opposite of success, it’s part of success.  The key is to expect many small failures based on the wrong assumptions AND master “learning and adapting” quickly on the path to success.