This quote has been around for awhile, and I riff of the approach that artists take.

If you’re working on something truly innovative rather than incremental improvements, then failure is not the opposite of success. Failure is in fact determining the parameters for success. When you’re working at the edges you don’t know what success looks like because there aren’t proven models to follow. At best you can take existing approaches and begin to prototype/experiment into the unknown. In these circumstances failure informs your nascent understanding and gets you closer to seeing what a success could look like.

It is important to distinguish between a goal and a solution. When you’re working on innovative ideas you likely will have a goal that you are driving towards but there shouldn’t any well-defined solutions (otherwise you’re not working on a very interesting or far-reaching question). In other words, you don’t know how to get the to the final answer but you should be able to determine whether or not the results of your experimentation (prototypes) get you closer to your goal. There is a fundamental difference between goals and solutions. When you’re trying to innovate, prototypes become your nascent solutions (or emulsions) that you test as you try to move towards that goal. It’s important to consider what success and failure mean relative to your goals and your proposed solutions (i.e. prototypes). In addition, prototyping and failure will likely lead you to adjust your goal – and that’s ok as it is part of the process. Knowing when to adjust your target and when to stay the course is a difficult decision, but flexibility needs to at least be considered.

Early failures are relatively cheap. Late failure as can be incredibly expensive. The phrase “fail early and fail often” is more than just to trite meme – its a philosophy on how to approach problem solving and innovation. if you’re working at the edges of any technology or emerging area, you really shouldn’t know what the “right” solution looks like. You can set out on a path and see where your prototyping takes you, but you may need to course correct or deviate and that will be based more on the failures rather than successes of your early and often prototypes. Failure in known operational areas is very different than talking about failure around innovation and research areas. Don’t confuse the two.  In operational areas failure something to be avoided but that’s because you already know what the parameters for success. When you’re exploring uncharted territory, you don’t know what solutions might look like, so you need failure to help figure out those bounds parameters.

In addition you don’t want to try and institutionalize “innovation”. Institutionalized processes exist to mitigate risk, control costs and otherwise force coloring within the lines. Innovation is about discovering the rules rather than abiding by them.

Understanding and embracing failure is core to fostering a culture of innovation. Without failure it is impossible to be creative and make conceptual leaps. Innovation is not about brainstorming, blue skying or any other codified processes or buzz phrases that get adopted by institutions. Innovation and creativity is about it having an exploratory mind-set and a willingness to be wrong in front of your peers. But it also includes rigor and the ability to frame questions rather than focusing on answers, while maintaining vigor with your experimentation. Artists understand this deeply, and their mentality needs to permeate the technology sectors in order to foster the next generation of innovative leaps.

There are myriad differences between the “left coast” and the rest of the country. In particular, many creative industries have either migrated west or were born in California. Despite the long-standing economic (Wall Street) and educational biases (Ivy League schools) in the US, the left coast has emerged as the home to high tech (Silicon Valley and other places) and entertainment (Hollywood and gaming). You can argue nature vs. nurture, but whatever the reasons, and despite significant obstacles like high housing prices, creative and tech continues to largely call the left coast home. Whether a tech startup or a struggling actor or screenwriter, there is a willingness to try and fail, usually publicly, that permeates the culture. You need look no further than dress codes to see the differences. Suit and tie puts forth a very professional and controlled/composed attitude. Jeans and a black turtleneck (extra points for sandals) are the antithesis, though they now are associated with “Steve.” There certainly are challenges in CA, and plenty of posturing and me-too. That is typical human behavior. But the pace, vibe, and energy is different in CA. And even within the state, there are differences, with Silicon Valley and Southern California having their own strengths. These attitudes can travel, but they need critical mass and support – which can be challenging.