Throughout my career I have seen some amazing technology come to life. I have been fortunate enough to have worked with some of the great business leaders of the 20th and 21st Centuries, witnessed their creativity and ingenuity first hand, and watched as those innovations have transformed industries across the globe.

But for every success, I have seen dozens of failures. For every brilliant idea, I have seen many fall at the first hurdle – or progress, limping towards an uncertain future. I have seen many leaders also rise and fall on the back of their idea – some have been able to taste success. Others continue to search for it. And as one idea, leader, team or organization fails and falls, another rises to take its place. The momentum and energy that sustains innovation seems to readily transfer from one project to another and one person to another. It is as if the role of innovator comes with a certain yet necessary degree of amnesia. We forget the pain and heartbreak of failure on the journey towards our own success.

More often than not, our successes are built on a string of smaller failures which we learn from and improve – so this idea of failing before succeeding tends to make sense to those with an innovator’s mindset. In Silicon Valley, this approach to failure has been popularized and optimized under the term “fail fast”. But in the risk averse environment that many of us operate, even failing fast can carry a negative connotation that lasts long after the project fades. Writer, Rob Asghar suggests that “failing fast” is hype – and not even relevant to the startup world:

On a visit I made to Silicon Valley last week, one entrepreneur, who preferred that his name not be used, explained the drill in frank terms. “Many people here do talk about embracing failure, but that’s usually just hype,” he said. “Many of them fear any kind of failure, and the pressure to succeed is so intense that some new businesses instead find themselves looking for shortcuts.”

So this brings us to the true challenge – not how to fail but how to succeed. How do we edge closer to a guarantee of success?

Nathan Furr, co-author of The Innovator’s Method, suggests that the way forward is to NOT rely so much on technology. In researching successful innovations, he found that we – as innovators – must challenge ourselves to resist the urge to jump to a conclusion. We must instead focus on problems. Listen to customers. Understand the “user needs”.

One way to frame this focus is to understand the role of your innovation in helping a customer “get a job done”. This immediately places your idea, innovation or invention into a relationship to a customer where there is the potential for a value exchange – I need something done, you can help me do it. The subtext here is that value can be measured and monetized – and the path to both of those leads directly back to your customer.

Furr’s message is clear:

Perhaps ask yourself, do I understand my customer’s job to be done? While our understanding is never complete, taking the time to go beyond surveys and instead observe and talk to customers almost always creates critically important insights for any innovator.

Nina Nets It Out: When thinking about innovation, resist the urge to jump to a “solution”. Focus on your users; your customers. Observe and listen, ask questions and respond to their needs. Once you have that deep understanding, bring technology to bear. After all, you don’t just want to create something, you want to create something that people use, and maybe even love.

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