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The Power of Failure: Success Stories From the World of Innovation

Einstein said that if you keep doing what you've always done, you shouldn't expect any different results. To achieve success you will often have to explore new paths with the risk of making mistakes. It’s because these new roads have not yet been tested. But no matter how paradoxical it may sound, if you do what has been done before and has already been tried and tested, the chance of success is much smaller.

Many successes were preceded by a period of failure.

Nintendo is known today for its iconic gaming consoles, but there was a time when absolutely everything they did failed. For example, they produced playing cards and marketed instant rice, but every adventure was a fiasco. Until they decided to develop a revolutionary game console and approach it in their own unique way. The rest is history.

But there are also many examples of success through failure in the field of art and architecture. Think of Gaudí's famous Sagrada Família in Barcelona. Gaudí experimented with advanced construction techniques for his time, such as the use of hyperbolic and parabolic shapes, and that did not always go well. But through experimentation, the Sagrada Família became a pioneer in modern architecture.

Or look at Van Gogh, who in his time was not worth a dime for trying something new, but is now one of the most famous painters in the world. But also think of Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, who needed thousands of failed attempts before he developed a working version. Walt Disney was also initially ridiculed for his cartoon ideas before eventually founding Disney Studios and becoming one of the most successful entertainment companies in the world.

Why safe and proven ways are less likely to be successful

Innovation is essential for progress. Sticking to existing and proven strategies can lead to stagnation and a lack of new ideas. This does not mean that you have to reinvent the wheel every time and within every sub-area, but you do have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to the essence of your company.

Even if you already have an ongoing business, it's important not to always safely color within the lines. My great-grandfather was part of a large family in the Dutch coastal town of Noordwijk that was famous for their wooden boat building. At that time, around 1900, there was a great demand for small wooden fishing boats and they had built up a nice fortune with them.

Unfortunately, for my stubborn and not-so-flexible great-grandfather, it was also the time of the rise of steel boats. According to him, that was just a phase and because of the many defects - they were too heavy to lift out of the water - this could never be a success. The family stubbornly continued to build wooden fishing boats under his leadership and in no time there was nothing left of the family fame on my mother's side.

Innovation always entails risks and opportunities

Innovating and therefore coming up with innovative ideas and solutions always entails risks and that requires a resilient mentality. If you cannot see every obstacle as a learning opportunity during the innovation process and are not prepared to set up something that could potentially fail completely, it is better to keep doing what you are already doing.

Together with a partner, I once launched a telecom concept on the market in which we made bundles of smartphones and subscriptions and sold them through displays at retail chains. It was quite challenging at first because retailers at that time did not sell telecom solutions; only the major telecom chains did that. But over time things started to pick up and one of the major telecom providers showed interest. At that time I had invested almost a million euros and while the company was still loss-making they wanted to take it over for a multiple of that.

While internal meetings at the management level at the telecom provider about the takeover were still ongoing, I had to invest another half a million euros to keep the business running. With the takeover already verbally confirmed, this did not seem to be a problem. But then, suddenly, a few banks in America got into trouble and we went into a huge crisis worldwide. Just as suddenly, the takeover fell through and I had no choice but to take my losses and close the company.

At that time, the same telecom provider was looking for a partner to develop part of their new subscription platform technology. Thanks to the knowledge we gained within the software development arm of one of my companies, due to the software we created for my telecom company we were the perfect fit for them. So, just 2 months after closing my telecom venture, I walked out with a contract worth approximately the same amount as the almost agreed acquisition price and we started developing their platform.

Without setting up the telecom company, we would never have acquired the knowledge and expertise needed, and we would never have been awarded this contract. That is why innovation always entails risks, but it also offers opportunities.

It takes discipline and purpose to fail on the way to success

Henry Ford saw his first two car factories go bankrupt before introducing his successful Model T with the Ford Motor Company. He still remains a striking example of someone who, with discipline and purpose, has changed the automotive industry forever.

Discipline and purpose went hand in hand at Ford, because discipline ensured that he steadily tried to bring something new to the market again and again. But without a purpose to make driving accessible to the common man, he would have given up much sooner. His purpose gave him a dream that he wanted to realize and the discipline gave him the strength to contribute to this every day, despite all the setbacks.

Only with discipline, this road would have been too long and too difficult. He would not have succeeded with a purpose alone, because then he would have lacked steady daily progress.


Now, I'm not saying that tried and true methods are inherently wrong, but I am saying that sticking to only tried and true methods can greatly limit the opportunity for growth and progress. Tried and tested methods are based on what has worked before, but they can become outdated in a rapidly changing world. Innovation is necessary because it introduces new ideas and approaches that can better respond to the needs of society, the market, and technology.

However, innovation carries inherent risk because it involves exploring unknown territory. New ideas and solutions are not guaranteed to succeed and may even lead to failure before they are successfully implemented. So it requires a willingness to take risks, be flexible, and learn from mistakes.

While proven methods often provide stability and certainty, they can also lead to stagnation and missed opportunities for growth and improvement. That's why I believe it's important to find a balance between sticking with what works and pursuing innovation to continue to innovate and gain or maintain a competitive advantage.

Question answer:

Why is failure so important in innovation?

Failure encourages innovators to explore new avenues and learn from failures, which can ultimately lead to breakthrough successes.

Which famous innovators initially failed before becoming successful?

Examples include Henry Ford, Nintendo, and Vincent van Gogh, who all overcame setbacks before achieving their great successes.

How can companies turn failure into success?

Companies can use failure as learning opportunities by fostering a culture of innovation, embracing risk, and remaining flexible in the pursuit of improvement.

What are some important lessons we can learn from successful innovators?

Key lessons include the importance of perseverance, embracing failures as learning opportunities, and adhering to a clear vision.

How can individuals and organizations overcome their fear of failure?

Overcoming fear of failure requires cultivating a growth mindset, where mistakes are viewed as opportunities for growth and improvement, and encouraging an open culture where failures are discussed and evaluated as learning opportunities.

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