When Innovation Turns Into Exasperation

Failed inventions and initiatives can give rise to painful—unproductive—“innovation trauma.”

Alberto Savoia launched Google Inc.’s AdWords, which remains a top revenue source by selling ads next to Google’s search results. But to understand the risks of innovation, ask him about ill-fated Google Wave.

The team behind the hugely successful Google Maps developed Google Wave, which was introduced in 2009 at Google I/O, Google’s annual conference for software developers. The product was supposed to set a new standard in online communications and collaboration. It let users drag files from their desktops into real-time discussions, share widgets and play games. But despite worldwide publicity, Google Wave sank. A little more than a year after its much-hyped introduction, Google Wave hadn’t been widely adopted, so Google ended it.

Savoia says: “Same great team of visionaries, developers. Same company. Completely different outcome.” A self-described serial entrepreneur, he sees it as proof in the need for “pretotyping”— making sure an idea is what the market wants before making big investments in it. He left Google in 2012 to lead Pretotype Labs, which is based on the approach he developed while at Google.

The ups and downs of innovative work demands resiliency, but not all innovators rebound as quickly as Savoia. Instead, some suffer from what’s known as “innovation trauma” when their concept fails despite their dedication. They feel a sense of devastation. Sometimes cynicism about innovation replaces enthusiasm for it or fear of another failure paralyzes team members.

Innovation trauma is often found in a situation where a team has become close and worked together in startuplike conditions during an intensive period, says Liisa Valikangas, professor of innovation management at Aalto University in Finland and a research affiliate at the nonprofit research organization Institute for the Future in California.

Valikangas studied one case on innovation trauma at Sun Microsystems Inc., which had hyped its JavaStation network computer in the late 1990s as the product to dethrone Microsoft Corp. Instead, JavaStation fizzled. The JavaStation team was merged into a rival group working on Sun Ray, another new network computer. JavaStation’s failure left the sales department skittish and the JavaStation team disgruntled that their project was killed in favor of Sun Ray. Instead of bringing knowledge, the JavaStation team was viewed as bringing a “culture of failure,” Valikangas says. The result: Sun Ray failed to meet expectations, as well.

Conversely, Valikangas also studied a team focused on making the largest electronics retail company in the United States more innovative. The project ended abruptly because of companywide cost cutting, but the experience didn’t paralyze the team members.

What helped them? They believed that their work wasn’t in vain. They continued management practices they had identified during the project, For example, a program to help women advance in the workplace drew on management innovation tools developed by the defunct project such as having an online marketplace for matching ideas with talent and having employees meet with their manager’s manager. They also recognized that their efforts had created a network of colleagues interested in innovating management principles and practices. This network offered healing and camaraderie, Valikangas says.

Investing in organizational healing helps avoid innovation trauma, Valikangas says. Discuss lessons learned: What was behind the failure? Was it just bad luck or wrong timing? What can we do differently next time? And honor the team’s efforts, she says. Celebrating the team’s high commitment to innovation will help the team remain engaged and willing to try new things.

“The organization must show it appreciates their great efforts and celebrate them,” Valikangas says.

Also look for ways to make sure that the contributions of the team or project aren’t forgotten, says Hans Thamhain, a professor of management at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Conducting post-project reviews lets organizations acknowledge contributions and diagnose causes of failure.

“These reviews get the team members involved, focusing on the work, its processes and support functions,” Thamhain says. “This helps to bring out lessons learned and helps to de-personalize issues. It also leads to visibility and recognition of many of the interim accomplishments and benefits gained from the project that will be useful for other projects and enterprise missions.”

The death of a project also can trigger grief, according to Dean Shepherd, a professor of entrepreneurship at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.

Some companies have adopted strategies to help employees overcome grief and learn from their experiences, according to research by Shepherd published in the journal Business Horizons. Eli Lilly and Co. held a party to honor “excellent scientific work that nevertheless resulted in failure,” he says. Other firms provide everything from “funerals” for failed projects to support groups for team members led by peers who have shown skills for coping with setbacks and remaining confident.

Edward Hess, professor of business administration at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, says innovation requires both organizational support and “individual resilience.” One way to avoid innovation trauma: Nurture a culture that encourages innovation.

Google, and the broader Silicon Valley region near San Francisco, are famous for such cultures. After Google Wave went from prominent premier to prominent flop, its team didn’t suffer, Savoia says. In fact, he doesn’t see innovation trauma as much of an issue, at least in Silicon Valley.

“The most I’ve seen in the projects I know might be ‘disappointment’ — but no trauma,” he says, “and people getting back to the next venture a few days or weeks later.”

Not all companies have a climate that prizes risk-taking and entrepreneurship. But all companies can take steps to minimize the trauma than can come from unsuccessful innovation efforts. Hess offers another potential tactic: To help employees realize failure isn’t met with shame, companies could provide “emotional rewards.” Let team members write about what they learned or even promote them. It sends the message that failure won’t be stigmatized, he says.

“In good innovation companies, basically ‘innovation trauma’ rarely exists,” Hess says. “And if it does, it is more a personal reaction than an organizational reaction. The right people in the right environment using the right processes rarely suffer innovation trauma because the organization mitigates it quickly.”

Todd Henneman is a writer based in Los Angeles. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.

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