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Failure is key to innovation

Failure is key to innovation
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First Published: Thu, Jun 26 2008. 10 53 PM IST
Updated: Thu, Jun 26 2008. 10 53 PM IST
Last weekend, I stopped in at my college roommate’s barbecue in New Jersey. Within the first 15 minutes, the reason the US wins, hands down, in the race to innovate became abundantly clear.
A big bowl on the table boasted flat, baked pretzels. The cooler on the deck was stocked with flavoured beers, lime to raspberry. And a trip to the bathroom yielded a special kind of soap that squirts out foam, making unnecessary that laborious task of rubbing dirty hands together.
None were products I had ever seen before — and after checking around, my friends confirmed their recent introduction to the market.
“Are you mocking our hyper-consumerist ways?” one asked me.
“No,” I said. “I am in awe of them. I’ve only been away nine months and every time I come back, it feels different. This is an amazing country.”
Of course, the newness of India also impresses and shocks on a regular basis. But in recent years and certainly in recent months as the US economy has slipped and slumped, concern has been voiced over it losing its competitive edge, particularly when it comes to innovation.
A headline in a research publication at the Georgia Institute of Technology implored, “Wake-up Call for Innovation: Other Countries Make Strides in Science and Technology, Threatening US Competitive Edge.” Last year, innovation guru John Kao published the book Innovation Nation: How America Is Losing Its Innovation Edge, Why It Matters, and What We Can Do to Get It Back. Around the same time, BusinessWeek magazine made it official, laying out the innovation enemies with the headline: “India and China Wise Up to Innovation”.
I have written about innovation before; in a Wider Angle of 3 August, I dismissed it as little more than a buzzword: “…the workplace is becoming wooed by fads and not effectively marrying best practices. …Instead of formalizing innovation, we need to go back to our roots a bit more. Managers should encourage doses of messiness, disorder, chaos, even lots of mistakes — circumstances that lend themselves to more ideating.”
While I still largely agree with that sentiment, my short time in the US this month leads me to believe that India’s pressing need of the hour is, indeed, innovation; research and development conferences are right to promise this will be “The World’s Knowledge Hub of the Future”. But their ability to meet that promise rests on another really vital part of successful innovating, something the US has already mastered: failure.
And this is where the whirlwind of products at my friend’s place becomes important. For the first three decades of my American-born life, I felt like I was part of one big experiment. My school didn’t have windows or walls, since a few studies in the late 1960s advocated “open” classrooms. That didn’t quite work, so the new wings of the 1990s all became traditional classrooms. Soon after, the state of New Jersey embarked on a special lane on the highway for cars with more than two passengers — it made the bus lanes so controversial in Indian cities look like a grand success story. Today, those lanes don’t exist any more. Even products everybody loved and knew, like Coke and Pepsi, constantly saw new introductions: clear, caffeine free, vanilla flavoured, one calorie to none at all.
Now think about your favourite products in India? How many times have they been reinvented? How many times do we admit we misread the market or made a mistake?
In India, the answer is not to innovate by copycatting the West’s inventions. But I fear two things: We are not learning from others’ mistakes, nor our own. In these times of great expansion and growth, rare has become the politician or business leader who ever admits he or she was wrong.
Even as they fear the US losing its competitive edge, experts agree the Americans’ ability to constantly reinvent and rarely leave well enough alone is key. “While India is growing fast, the US remains by the most innovative country, by almost all recognized measures of innovation,” Philip Shapira, professor of innovation, management and policy at the UK-based Manchester Institute of Innovation Research, Manchester Business School, University of Manchester, told me in an email.
Case in point: While googling the background of my new favourite snack — the flat pretzel — I discovered a previous incarnation under a division of Nabisco Foods. Despite a few diehard fans, “Mr. Phipps Pretzel Chips” never really took off, although they did win an award for “best new product” in 1993. The judges lauded the company for being “able to fill an unmet consumer need, leverage consumer perception by generating brand awareness…”
In India, too, plenty of awards exist to innovate. Maybe it’s time to celebrate the losers. As Mr. Phipps ultimately showed, he was just before his time.
Your comments are welcome at widerangle@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Jun 26 2008. 10 53 PM IST
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