The Future Of Innovation ... Lessons From Napeleon

Dr David Robertson


The future of innovation...creating an environment for innovation

Managing innovation can be as frustrating as raising children.  You have the responsibility.  You do your best to establish the right environment.  But in the end, you have to leave the creation of the innovation to the team, and the growing up to the child.  Naturally, you want to offer both the best chance of success, so you focus on the environment, where there may be room for impact.  But how much impact can you have on the future of innovation, and where should you direct your efforts?

Psychology or Economics?

I looked into the first question with co-authors Nicholas Dew and Philippe Margery.  Based on a quantitative review of 31 existing articles looking at the antecedents of innovation performance, we were able to offer some insight into whether it is the psychology, or the economics of the environment which impacts innovations more.  More simply put, are rewards such as bonus, pay, equity and promotions (economics) more powerful levers for generating innovation outputs than setting up a situation where people feel safe experimenting and potentially failing (psychology)? 

The Hard Impact of the Soft Side

We found was that the correlation between psychological safety and innovation performance twice as strong as the relationship between economic levers and innovation.  We describe psychological safety as an environment where peers and supervisors empower individuals or teams that want to investigate a new opportunity or technology.  And perhaps more important, psychological safety is also characteristic of organisations that effectively extract the learning accompanied by failure, as opposed to punishing the innovator.

The Future of Failure

Our takeaway from these findings is that managers who aspire to drive innovation need to carefully consider how to manage failure.  Transferring that employee who was unsuccessful at entering a new market to the mailroom is not the answer.  Conducting thoughtful after-action-reviews of projects, both home runs and dismal failures, is more consistent with creating an environment of psychological safety.  Adding that employee who was unsuccessful at entering a new market to the next innovation team is doubly consistent with the idea.  It ensures that what was learned the last time will not be repeated this time.  And it sends a message to the rest of the organisation  that learning is more valued than failure is penalized. 

Culture and Safety

This approach may be easier to adopt in different parts of the world.  In Silicon Valley, it has been said that a failed entrepreneur is more likely to gain venture funding than one who has never tried.  In Switzerland, entrepreneurs with good businesses regularly refuse venture funding as it would make any possible future failure too visible.  And an entrepreneurship student from Japan told me he would love to start a company, but never would because if he failed, he would not be able to attract a wife.  Within each of these diverse contexts, it is our challenge as managers of innovation to bring a culture of psychological safety to the organisation  and free our people to be creative.


Article © 2009 Dr David Robertson. All rights reserved.

about the author...

Dr David Robertson

Dr David Robertson

affiliation:   Imd

position:  Professor

country:  Switzerland

area of interest:  Creating and Environment for Innovation

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