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THE CRITICAL ROLE OF FAILURE IN THE INNOVATION PROCESS: HOW FAILURES HELP INVENTORS SUCCEED

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In a 2011 interview, Steve Jobs declared, “You’ve got to be willing to fail. You’ve got to be willing to crash and burn.” While this concept is not yet widely accepted in our culture and seems counterintuitive to our human desire to succeed, we argue that failure is actually the key to success. Indeed, Thomas Edison was famous for saying, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work,” which beautifully expresses the crucial role failure plays in the invention process. Our AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors, while celebrating and highlighting the role that invention plays in improving our quality of life, are quite open to discussing their own stories of failure—financial, emotional, academic, and personal. For years, Paul Stamets funded his own research on mycelium; Steve Sasson, inventor of the digital camera, was ignored by the leaders at Kodak; and Jay Harman preached the importance of vortexes for business people who could not see beyond the straight line. Using the case study of Promethean Power Systems, a start-up that developed a rapid-cooling milk chiller sold to dairy processors in India, the authors demonstrate that a natural and necessary part of the invention ecosystem is the willingness to take risks and embrace failure. Peter Sims asserts that “we live in a culture that has a paralyzing fear of failure, which prevents action and hardens a rigid perfectionism,” but Promethean Power’s story demonstrates that, when coupled with introspection and perseverance, failure can be an effective tool for innovation.
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Keywords: Entrepreneurship; Failure; Innovation; Invention; Risk-taking

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: March 8, 2016

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