Why Edison Was Wrong

Researchers often throw around the Edison quote, “I have not failed 700 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that th
May 09, 2011

Researchers often throw around the Edison quote, “I have not failed 700 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”

Researchers use this quote because it “validates” the iterative development innovation process, which is the cornerstone of most R&D departments. They have convinced themselves that they learn as much from their failures as they do from their successes.  Call it what you want, the 700 attempts were failures.

This viewpoint goes counter to the concept of open innovation (external crowdsourcing). When some R&D people look at open innovation, they see it as linear rather than iterative; post a challenge and get a solution. This seems inconsistent with their belief in learning from failures.

Perhaps the value of iterative development is overrated.

What if Edison found a solution to the light bulb challenge on the first try? Would that be bad? Would he have continued to find the 700 ways that did not work? Did the 700 failures really add that much value? Can R&D organizations afford to fail 700 times? Not in today’s competitive environment.

Want to read more about learning from failure? Check these out:

Open innovation is a massively parallel process where failures and successes happen at the same time. You post a challenge and you get dozens or hundreds of solutions. Some won’t work. But all you need is one solution that does work. And with open innovation, you only pay for the solutions that do work. Failures cost you nothing in terms of time and money. With internal iterative development, you pay for the successes and the failures. Do you really learn enough from your failures to justify the extra cost and time involved?

I see this as being applicable to analytical/deterministic challenges. Creative challenges and their solutions, on the other hand, often can’t be proven correct until they are tried out in the real world. Iterative development–via small and scaling experiments– may still be the best approach for solving less deterministic problems. I call this approach the “build it, try it, fix it” model.  Having said that, the iterations could potentially be staged as a series of open innovation challenges that continue to refine concepts until they are market-ready. This would be a massively parallel iterative creative development.

This got me thinking about a conversation I had with an executive from Chrysler many years ago while I was working at Accenture. I asked him who he felt his biggest competition would be in the future. He pointed at me and said, “You.”  Although he was half-joking, it’s true that the role of car manufacturers these days is less about manufacturing and more about integration. The Accentures of the world are masterful at integration.

And maybe this integration skill is the MOST important skill for your organization to have.