On When To Risk Innovation…

I’m reading a book on the philosophy behind structural engineering. I was struck by this quote (also in the image):

While engineers can learn from structural mistakes what not to do, the only thing they learn from success is to repeat what led to the success without change.

The idea is that failure forces us to change to avoid the same failure. But success encourages us to just keep doing the same thing over and over.

Now, this isn’t necessarily bad. The truth is that any professional services business is kept afloat by boring, repeatable projects – the backbone of service revenue is doing things you know how to do and that hide few surprises. This means that you generally try to stick with what you know, and refine that process through incrementally “filing down” bumps you find along the way.

I always struggled with this when I was in professional services, with Blend Interactive. How much innovation do you push into each new project? Do you always rock the boat and try to do things better, or do you stick with what you know?

When you do get … space to truly innovate? When do you feel safe enough to try to do things entirely differently in an attempt to find a new way, without damaging yourself or your client’s project? We all love to break new ground, but when payroll is due next week and the client is strung as tight as a piano wire, that’s not always reasonable.

Oftentimes, boring is good – boring keeps you in business.

This is all a perfect encapsulation of the concept of a “local maximum.” This is when you’ve gone as far as you can down a specific path, and you need to retreat a bit to go forward again – to break through that local maximum.

So, when considering a refined, repeatable, profitable process – when is it truly opitmized, and when is it just paused at a local maximum? And how do you know? What’s the heuristic for figuring out if you need to shake a process up and try to make it better, even if it doesn’t seem flawed on the surface? When can you risk getting worse in the short-term to maybe get better in the long-term?

I don’t know the answer, and I don’t think anyone does. This is one of the enduring mysteries of business that you just get an instinct for. People who say they know exactly when to do this are probably wrong just as often as they’re right, and how would anyone know otherwise? We’re talking about failure remember, so mistakes can be simply rationalized as “creative destruction.”

I think there’s value is always being aware that there might be a better way, and continually looking for the right opportunity to exercise it. Call it… selective risk taking?

Maybe a key to success is being able to identify the most advantageous moments to risk failure?

This is item #15 in a sequence of 42 items.

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