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Failure is just the beginning: Lessons in innovation from GE, Google, and Intel

Left to Right: Regina Dugan, Beth Comstock, and Renee JamesLeft to Right: Regina Dugan, Beth Comstock, and Renee James
Left to Right: Regina Dugan, Beth Comstock, and Renee JamesPhotograph by Stuart Isett

Resources: Time, money, personnel. You’d think more would be better when you’re trying to innovate in a corporate setting. However, the consensus among panelists speaking on the topic of growth and innovation at the Fortune Most Powerful Women summit was that constraints were the key to new and exciting solutions.

“Often when you just throw money at a project, you’re not focused,” said General Electric (GE) vice chair Beth Comstock. Regina Dugan, VP of engineering, advanced technology, and projects at Google (GOOG), agreed: “Constraint forces you to edit.”

How else can you build a culture of innovation at your organization? Here are three pieces of advice from the panel:

1. Find people who aren’t afraid to fail.

If you look at the name badges of Intel (INTC) employees, you’ll see that many have the phrase “Failure is the path forward” on the reverse side. “The ability to fail and take risks is a really important part of setting a foundation and culture,” said Intel president Renee James. James told a personal story about how she failed spectacularly by attempting to build cloud-based services 10 years too early. “The point is,” she said, “it didn’t end my career. I was in the doghouse and had to climb out, but it wasn’t the end.”

2. Foster good tension.

In a company that is continually trying to innovate, there is often tension between the engineers, who are trying to come up with newer or better products, and the marketers who are trying to introduce them to the world. What you want to avoid, said Comstock, is bad tension where they’re fighting each other along the way. “It’s a sign of good leadership when you bring everyone together,” she noted, “when you create mechanisms to know that you’re all going to figure it out together.”

3. Don’t let failure slow you down.

It’s sad when an idea fails—especially a big idea into which resources have been poured. You need to allow employees to come to terms with the failure. Then, said James, you need to get them into their next project as quickly as possible. “It keeps people from feeling like the rest of the organization is looking at them like they did something horrible,” she said. “Communicate to the rest of the organization what they learned and how the company is going to benefit from that.”