Seeing the ordinary as extraordinary

Written by Mahesh Bhatt | Updated: Mar 6 2006, 05:30am hrs
Im on my way to Pune to deliver a talk on the significance of creativity and innovation in our ever-changing world to the executives of LG Electronics. My driver, who is an unsure Bihari from Patna, breaks the momentum of the car every now and then to enquire from the passers-by whether or not he is on the right path. His timidity and over-cautiousness is not only preventing us from reaching our destination at the prescribed time, but is also serving as an unnecessary irritant, and making me edgy. I tell him to keep going; we can always turn back if he makes a mistake. I get the feeling that he doesnt even hear me. In spite of the signs on the road, pointing us in the right direction, in spite of the map in his hand, so blinded is he by his fear that he sees nothing.

But, every dark cloud has a silver lining. As we hit one roadblock after another due to his over-cautiousness, the realisation hit me....It is fear that is the greatest enemy of the creative spirit and a roadblock to all innovation. It haunts every business dealing as it peeps over the shoulder of every prospective innovator, whispering in his ear not to take the risk, to do it the way its always been done or he would fail and risk losing everything. Unwittingly, this unsure driver has provided me with fodder for my talk.

Failure is the great modern taboo. Bookshops are full of recipes of how to succeed, but largely silent on how to cope with failure. In the movie world, when a movie bombs at the box office we are haunted by this fear, which paralyses us, telling us time and again that we are not good enough.

But this kind of thinking belongs to an obsolete mindset, which has no room in the language of anyone who is remotely committed to innovation of any kind. I remember the movie moguls of yesteryear confessing to me how they used to skip town, get diarrhea, go into depression or seek oblivion in alcoholic binges when their films fared poorly at the box office. Even today, I know of many famous producer- directors who just disappear at release time. And one of my buddies is so frightened of failing that he keeps bringing his films to the production stage and then aborting them. My words to him have always been: Buddy, the only way not to make a flop is not to make a film, just as if you dont want to die, then dont get born!

According to me, the golden key to success lies in risking failure, time and again. Doing this requires changing the way we think about success and failure. In a rapidly changing economy, product manufacturers will confront at least as much failure as success. Does that mean they have failed Only by their grandfathers definition of failure. Both success and failure are steps towards achievement. The edifice of the writer of this piece for instance, is built on the bedrock of failure! Coca-Colas climb to the top grew directly out of its New Coke debacle, and near-bankruptcy forced IBM to completely re-invent itself. Brand leader Nokia became a market leader in cell phones only after coming to the edge of extinction. Even LG Electronics made a disastrous start in the 90s before becoming the market leaders that they are today.

Wise leaders accept their setbacks as necessary footsteps on the path towards success. They also know the best way to fall behind in a shifting economy is to rely on what worked in the past. There is no place for failure-phobic companies in this century, because organisations the world over are finding that last years solutions, even last months solutions, are no longer relevant in todays challenges.

The best way to fall back in a shifting economy is to rely on past successes
Fear is the enemy of the creative spirit and a roadblock to all innovation
We must stop assessing workers with rigid criteria of success and failure
I sincerely beli-eve that the less we chase success and run from failure, the more likely we are to genuinely succeed. It would help if this change were initiated in our education system itself, which is unfortunately based on the philosophy of success versus failure, instead of free and unfettered learning. Great coaches de-emphasise winning, saying that this is the best approach to real winning. They call this approach the Samurai Success, after the Japanese warriors who focused their attention on full participation in a contest, rather than its outcome.

My attempt as a leader is today to de-stigmatise failure and raise questions about success. But you will say that nobody wants to fail. However, welcoming failure and seeing value in failure are two different things. Failures are like forest fires, clearing dead wood to make room for fresh growth. Havent we seen before that defeat often leads to victory and victory to defeat

Risking failure is the essence of innovation. But get this straight; Im not trying to promote failure. Failure that results from sloppy planning or overall carelessness should not be condoned. When it is a result of a well-planned departure from the norm, or due to circumstances beyond ones control, one must not penalise those involved in it and call them failures. Only organisations who re-invent their cultures and become more risk-friendly, more tolerant to failure, will be more innovative. The need of the hour is to tear down old structures and encourage innovation, rather than assess the work of our workers through rigid, outdated criteria of success and failure. Only then will we create an atmosphere in our work force of freedom, which will ignite the creative spirit and lead to genuine innovation.

The writer is a Mumbai-based film maker