At some point, every innovation project – every company – will take a punch on the nose, probably multiple times before it finds success. Sometimes, we’re prepared for it, but too often they blindside innovators who did not anticipate failure. While many people assume early struggles will derail a new initiative, it’s actively avoiding taking hits that eventually leads to the knockout blow we never saw coming.

In large, established organizations, leaders face the classic innovator’s dilemma: the processes built to safeguard the enterprise are exactly what put the company at risk of a knockout blow. Good management practices seek to avoid risk, minimize failure, or to try and make new innovations fit into the current structure of the business. While that may be good for a healthy short-term P&L, this lack of repeated, scientific failure puts big companies at risk when more nimble competitors bring disruptive change to the marketplace.

Too often, innovators dive into market research or theory to avoid experimenting with new ideas. While this insight can help get a project through internal challenge sessions, it does little to prove that an idea will actually work with customers. In the enterprise, innovators tend to plan for things like revenue projections or internal stage gates, but avoid real-world testing that might challenge their assumptions. By avoiding failure early, innovators make the impact of an eventual failure much worse.

At last week’s Enterprise Entrepreneurship series, Carrie Moore, experience design lead at Delta Air Lines’ The Hangar innovation lab, shared that within Delta failure was the tuition innovators must pay to push a project forward.

Of course, the word failure means many things – mostly negative – to many people. Failure of an idea does not mean a failed idea. Failure means you’re trying, failure means you learned something that you didn’t know before. As Carrie puts it, failure is simply an investment in a learning opportunity.

There’s an opportunity cost to not experimenting. By waiting longer to do something, many innovators think they have minimized their risk. Yet the opposite is true. The longer it takes to test an idea, the more likely you are to miss an opportunity.

Innovation frameworks like Google’s design sprint are meant to give innovators the tools to harness purposeful, intended failure into forward momentum. If innovation labs are failing an idea and iterating on a weekly basis, instead of waiting six months to hit the first failure, the project is continually jumping ahead on solid ground.

While they should perhaps not embrace it with open arms, innovators should not shy away from failure. In fact, they can’t afford to. When we plan for it and take steps to learn from it, failure is simply the price we pay to learn how to do something better.


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