In 2005, on the way to winning skiing’s World Cup, Bode Miller fell or failed to finish more often than anyone else on the circuit, crashing out in about 30 percent of his runs. That was a sign that he was going for it, operating at the cusp of maximum speed and control, continuing to push the envelope. That’s where you want to be in innovation: failing often enough to know that you’re testing the limits, but succeeding a lot, too. What won Bode the title wasn’t falling down, but going fast while staying upright 70 percent of the time. Professor Hess’s big point is right, but it’s a sign that something’s very wrong when a 90 percent failure rate can be a parenthetical aside. In any other business pursuit, a failure rate that high would be the headline. Show me a ski racer who falls 90 percent of the time and I’ll show you a racer bounced from his team.
Innovation is hard. But there’s no shortage of pursuits in human endeavor that are really hard. Brain surgery is hard. Fighting terrorism is hard. Rocket science really is rocket science. But in none of these hard things is failure a celebrated thing. It shouldn’t get the blanket of praise it’s getting in innovation, either. Failing is only great in moderation. But that’s not where most companies find themselves today. They’re failing too often, too slowly, and at a very high price.
How to Kill a Unicorn by Mark Payne, p.236