Tony Scott, Fernando Pessoa, Michael Jordan, Innovation and Failure: Am I the only vile and errant one on Earth?

10 03 2009

This is an updated version of a post I originally wrote for my internal IBM blog back in 2006. Some of the points there are still relevant today.

As the downturn in the global economy continues, many companies adopt a cautious approach towards innovation. In some ways, tough economic times may actually be a good opportunity for companies to innovate and differentiate themselves from the competition. Borrowing from the punctuated equilibrium theory, innovation may occur in bursts when facing major shifts in the ecosystem. Also, as Google likes to claim, creativity loves constraint.

A few years ago, I was fortunate to listen to a talk about innovation by Tony Scott, who carries the impressive track of being a CTO at GM, and a CIO with Disney and Microsoft. In my poorly written notes, here’s what he said, or more precisely, my recollection of what he said back then:

  • Innovation is a combination of inspiration, perspiration, persistence and really good marketing.
  • Good architecture principles, according to Vitruvius Pollio (referred by some as the first architect) are order, eurhythmy, symmetry, propriety, economy, commodity, firmness and delight. We tend to focus the least in the last one.
  • Competition and cooperation can co-exist.
  • Create a culture where you’re allowed to fail from time to time.

Innovation implies exploring new possibilities, and learning from mistakes. An error-adverse culture cannot expect much innovation to occur.

In our continuous pursuit for innovation in the enterprise, we need to have a frame of mind where we take some risks and we accept failures, admit them, and learn from them. If you don’t tolerate errors, or deny them, you are just freezing yourself in your current position. In a world changing at a very fast pace, the status quo means staying behind and it just creates an environment where nobody dares to innovate. Enterprises could learn a lot from:

  • All projects that went over budget
  • All innovative ideas that failed to realize potential gains
  • All bids and proposals lost
  • All products and services exhibiting a shrinking market share

I also like this Michael Jordan quote:“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” As basketball wisdom goes, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

Note that I’m not proposing that we should create a culture of losers. The idea I’m trying to convey can be summarized by “His Airness” again: “I can accept failure, but I can’t accept not trying.”

One of my favourite writers/poets of all time was the Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa, who wrote, as his heteronym Álvaro de Campos, the gem below about the denial with which we tend to approach failure.

For the Portuguese and Spanish speakers out there, try the original version, “Poema em linha reta.

Foursquare Poem

I’ve never known anybody who’s had the crap beaten out of them.
All my aquaintances have been champions in everything.

I, so often shabby, so often swinish, so often vile,
I, so often, unforgivably, a parasite.
Inexcusably filthy I,
Who so often haven’t had the patience to shower,
I, who so often have been ridiculous, absurd,
Who have publicly wiped my feet on etiquette’s tapestry,
Who have been grotesque, paltry, servile, and arrogant,
Who have silently suffered besmirching
And when I haven’t been silent, have been even more ridiculous;
I, who have been a clown for chambermaids,
I, who have felt the winks of stevedores,
I, who have been fiscally embarassed, who have borrowed and forfeited,
I, who when the time for blows arises,
Have recoiled in advance of the possibility of blows;
I who have suffered the anguish of ridiculous little things,
I declare that in all the world I am without par.

Every one I know who speaks to me
Never did a ridiculous thing, never suffered besmirching,
Was never anything but a prince – all of them princes – in life…

If only I could hear another human voice
Confess not sin, but disgrace;
Confess not violence, but cowardice!
No, they’re all The Ideal, to hear them tell it.
Who in this great world will confess to me that even once they were vile?
O princes, my brothers,

God damn it, I’m fed up with semi-gods!
Where are there people in the world?

Am I the only vile and errant one on earth?

Women may not have loved them,
They may have been betrayed – but ridiculous, never!
And I, who have been ridiculous without being betrayed,
How can I speak to my superiors without reeling?
I who have been vile, literally vile,
Vile in the most paltry and infamous meaning of the word.

(I couldn’t find the source for the translation above, so if anybody knows it, please drop me a note so that I can properly credit it and ask for permission to have it here.)








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