Why it sometimes takes failure to achieve new understanding

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Back when I was at Johnson & Johnson, I led a lot of the IT innovation work. That’s where I learned that there is a fine line between people who are risk takers and people who take risks. You definitely don’t want people who take risks; you want people who are risk takers. And the truth is, nobody likes things to fail.

So success and innovation are not about failing. They are not about taking silly risks. They are about taking risks that if successful, will really drive the company forward. And risks cannot be skunkworks. Risks have to be done in a transparent way. You need to hear from your staff, “Here’s what we’re working on, and here’s why we’re going to do it in a riskier way, and here’s the benefit if we do it.” It’s about getting buy-in and support for the idea and then it’s full steam ahead and not just trying something silly.

So how can you tell the difference between a risk taker and someone who takes risks?

It depends on the role. There’s no such thing as pure failure for me. There’s smart failure, which is what happens to people who try things in multiple different ways in an effort to seek new and better approaches to the tried and true. The whole reason for risk is to innovate faster, and you do need failure to do it, but you need to fail in a way that leads to new understanding.

Stuart Kippelman is the Chief Information Officer at Platform Specialty Products Corp. Previously, Stuart served as Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer of Covanta, a world leader in waste-to-energy and renewable energy projects. As a valued member of executive management, Stuart was responsible for the global vision, strategy and operations of Covanta's IT organization.