A Biography of Innovations: How to develop a culture with creative failures

21st Oct 2017, BUSINESS STANDARD When an organization wants to be more accepting of failure and experimental, what are the barriers? Everyone agrees that breakthrough attempts are essential for innovation and, hence, the risk of failure must be accepted by organizations.


When an organization wants to be more accepting of failure and experimental, what are the barriers? Everyone agrees that breakthrough attempts are essential for innovation and, hence, the risk of failure must be accepted by organizations.

A Biography of Innovations From Birth to Maturity

Author: R Gopalakrishnan

Publisher: Penguin, Pages: 256, Price: Rs 399

What everyone sees in reality is that organizational rewards go only to those who deliver fault-free work. There is even academic research to evidence this fact. For example, the creative folks in advertising are often given the caveat: ‘No risks, please.’ In an international company, the local team will not risk advertising anything that will be disapproved by those involved in judging these advertisements at the headquarters. Only occasionally is the barrier transgressed — like with J&J’s ‘Nude Models Wanted’ advertisement by Trikaya Grey in the 1970s, or the whacky Wheel advertising by Hindustan Lever in the mid-1980s, and the more recent Cadbury bitter-chocolate campaign.

Large organizations think that encouraging failures would have implications on its reputation and thus want to play it safe. An organizational culture of taking small bets or making fatal errors at a later stage of that work can prevent the development of a weak culture. Most people are very unclear about how to accomplish this magical state…

Here is a way to think about the issue and classify error types.

Three types of errors occur in organizations: first, the error arising due to sabotage or intentional concealment. Leadership has to demonstrate zero tolerance for this type. Second, an error occurs due to carelessness or the bending of rules. Organizations develop some tolerance for these, but do not explicitly approve of their occurrence. The third type is a creative error, which occurs due to changing market circumstances, calculated risks, experimentation or even bad luck. These are ‘good errors’ and can be encouraged if someone defines what a creative error is. Only then can creativity be encouraged. Gerhard Bihl was the human resources director of BMW’s Regensburg factory around 1990. His challenge was to convert the ideas from employees’ craniums into practice. He began an activity called ‘Flop of the Month’, or, more elegantly put, ‘Creative Error of the Month’. In contrast to the conventional ‘Employee of the Month’ scheme, which eulogizes the errorfree, highly efficient and ideal employee, this activity focuses on the tragic hero of everyday business, whose experiences harbour unexpected learning potential. Bihl piloted the scheme in the Regensburg factory for three-and-a-half years, during which time twelve awards were given away. In due course, the scheme petered away and the issue of encouraging creative errors remained a challenge. In the US, Ireland and Sweden, the sharing of mistakes and lessons from misadventures is celebrated through what is called the ‘Golden Egg’ awards. As one member of an Ann Arbor association of corporate presidents puts it, ‘I want to hear it from the member who got egg on his face trying out his idea.’ The presentation of the award for the best mistake of the month became a standard part of their meeting, and the trophy itself added an important new dimension. It gave the company president the chance to be a model for treating mistakes as opportunities to learn how to do it better, rather than treating it as a situation requiring blame. It legitimized the importance of learning from both our failures and successes. Tata has experimented with these concepts through a ‘Dare to Try’ initiative. A satisfying outcome has been the openness of managers to come forward with stories that were not successful. When this category was initiated in 2007, the Tata companies had to be cajoled to participate and there were only twelve cases from six companies! In 2016 there were 250 cases from thirty-five companies. The transparency in discussing such cases has helped in building a learning culture in Tata…. If the acceptance of creative errors is encouraged, teams and individuals will surely develop a learning culture, which will be a stepping-stone for successful innovations. Such a discriminating approach to various types of organizational errors can help encourage the right errors and foster that elusive spirit of risk taking that all organizations strive for… Developing the dry photocopier When I began my professional career in the 1960s, Indian firms deployed ‘photostat’ machines, a wet technology involving liquid chemicals and ink. The principle of this machine was based on photography — an image of the material was placed on a metal stencil and then copies were rolled out by running ink and chemicals over the stencil, much like the letterpress-printing technology. It was cumbersome and slow. The demand for the machines was serviced by photographic and chemical companies like Eastman Kodak and the Haloid Company. The restless and inspiring atmosphere of the Budapest cafes of the 1930s was a spur to creativity, as evidenced by the story of László Bíró, the inventor of the ball pen, which follows later in this book. The cafe culture spurred another innovation. Hungarian researcher Pál Selényi used to research at the department of applied physics at Budapest University after studying physics and mathematics. Selényi published a paper in a German journal during the 1930s, in which he contemplated dispensing with chemicals and wet processes and proposed that a beam of ions could be used to create a dry image on a rotating drum of insulating material. Thus, an idea crystallized out of a concept in his brain — with no disrespect, an obscure idea from an obscure scientist in an obscure journal! Chester Carlson, twenty-two years younger than Selényi, was a prolific innovator, who had been fired from Bell Laboratories, New York, for ‘his failed business schemes outside of the company’. Many years after its publication, Selényi’s paper gripped the mind of the ever-so-curious Carlson. He promptly hired an out-ofwork Austrian physicist called Otto Kornei to assist him. Carlson is generally considered the inventor of photocopying. By 1938, Carlson and Kornei had dry-transferred some lettering from one surface to another, and this was the first prototype of the dry copier technology, which rules our lives today. Carlson got a patent by 1942, but it took another three years for Battelle Memorial Institute to give Carlson some funding. The leading wet copier company of those times was the Haloid Company. Its CEO, Joseph Wilson, was initially reluctant, but was persuaded to commercialize the dry copier invention. Spurred on by a $100,000 technology grant from the US Army, Haloid secured an inner track for further product development through an exclusive licence for the invention. A branding exercise of sorts combined two Greek words to launch a new terminology, xerography: xeros (dry) and graphein (writing). When Haloid directors voted to adopt the term ‘xerography’, the company’s legal department wanted to patent the word. John Hartnett, an advertising executive, prevailed upon the legal department to avoid patenting the word by saying, ‘We want people to say the word Xerox.’ In due course, the Haloid Company renamed itself Xerox Corporation. In 1961, about thirty years after Selényi’s paper was published, the Xerox 914 was shipped out to customers for the first time. For over half a century now, we have not paused to recall Chester Carlson or Pál Selényi. So much for the footprints innovators leave on the sands of time!