The light bulb is commonly used as an illustration to accompany articles about innovation and science (see above). It is a universally recognised symbol of discovery – the a-ah! moment when the researcher/inventor finally finds the big breakthrough or cracks a hitherto unsolvable problem. A light shines where before there was only darkness.

In a real sense, though, the light bulb is also a symbol of failure. Thomas Edison, the 19th century American genius who was an innovator before people knew innovators existed, failed so many times that had he been a person of less self belief he would have given up and found himself a “proper job”.

But what Edison knew, what he understood in his very core, is that failure is in fact success. He stripped the word of its pejorative miasma and redefined it as a necessary condition of achievement.

In his own work on the light bulb Edison reached a dead end time after time. Was he deterred? Of course not.

I have not failed,” the great man said, “I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

He also noted that our greatest weakness on the journey to discovery lies in giving up – “The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”

Persistence is required so that failure is not a barrier, merely a stepping stone.

I was reminded of Edison this week thanks to an article in the excellent education-focused online newspaper The EvoLLLution.

It was an interview with David Collis, a Professor at Harvard Business School.

Collis was talking among other things about the challenges of creating an innovative culture within higher education establishments.

Referring to big corporations, he said that one of the biggest impediments to innovation is that people won’t take risks because they fear the consequences, which can in some cases mean getting fired.

Organizations are not designed to take risks and it has the unfortunate effect of creating risk aversion in the organization … People are scared of failure, and if you have to get through so many roadblocks and so many people who can veto innovation along the way, it becomes cumbersome.”

The most important thing that leaders can do to spur innovation is to switch the thinking around … “Corporations today need to find ways to encourage people to take risks and reward them even if it doesn’t turn out.”

He said it takes leadership from the top to drive innovation because the institution won’t change itself. Further, he added, it takes courage to say, ‘We’re going to try some things and not all of them are going to work and that’s fine.’

Collis said various higher education institutions are designed and set up to have absolutely zero failures – “and that’s simply wrong – you have to have some failures if you’re going to be innovative”.

The leader of the institution has to have the courage and has to acknowledge and accept that some of the projects an institution takes on are not going to work … If we just carry on doing things the same way, we’re not going to solve anything. That’s why innovation is so important.”

The ability to innovate, to develop an innovative culture, and to nurture innovative graduates, requires university leaders and hierarchies to follow Edison’s example and to see failure as the route to success – admittedly a difficult proposition for institutions in which “pass-fail” is fundamental to student assessment.

Will universities have their own light bulb moment and become shining examples to innovators by rewarding failure?

DM