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Fail Your Way to Innovative Success
Guest Author: Theodore “Ted” C. Kraver, Ph.D.
With the rapidly changing institutions and culture measured in months to decades, not centuries to millennium, personal STEM success will depend on flexibility and ability to as fast-movers , seize both failure and opportunity.
The first great human technological innovation was putting the handle on a stone hand axe. It greatly increased usefulness for both domestic needs and warfare. The axe remained unchanged for over 200,000 years. The life span of the first hoe was several thousand years before enchantment. By the Middle Ages STEM was starting to emerge in agriculture, buildings and warfare. The innovation cycle from invention to failure do to obsolescence decreased to about a century. During the 20th century it dropped to decades. Today technology products become obsolete and fail in the market in a few years, and many have yearly cycles.
Going back to early times, failure of a farmer’s crop experiment could go either way both bad. If successful, his landlord or ruler would confiscate the surplus. If not successful then his family starved. In more recent centuries our civilization became more complex and invention-driven innovation began to thrive. The limited areas of betting your life on food, shelter or battles was greatly expanded into many less hazardous areas. Innovation by skilled artisans picked up the pace. By the Industrial Revolution innovation began to flourish. Risks were spread to the developing financial institutions and companies and reduced by increasing access to markets. But by the 1960’s innovation had shifted to corporations and was throttled by bureaucracy. Inventions like the transistor, computer languages, the mouse, laser printers, and Ethernet languished because successful corporate management had no incentive to be disruptive of their profitable product lines. Workers and families planned a stable job over their lifespan. The innovation cycle time continued to plummet and new forms of innovative enterprises were emerging.
By the 1980’s computers, networks and entrepreneurs were challenging the corporate status quo. Health care, finance, government and education have become the major part of the U.S. economic powerhouse. Accounting has changed from tracking expenditures to risk management. Cloud manufacturing and 3-D printing has vastly reduced the risk of manufacturing of new products in small companies. Information sourcing of heritage seeds delivers as many new apples in grocery stores as Apple devices in computer retailers.
For STEM students and workers, the challenges and opportunities will continue to change. Future social institutions will be as hard to predict as were the changes in the Progressive era (resisted by the Robber Barons) and 1930’s reforms (resisted by Wall Street.) In the past, your reputation could be based on your institution. Now it’s your personal reputation, which must be self-made and self-marketed.
In the distance past it was all risk and no reward. The corporate era had stable rewards and low risk. The current transformation embraces risk and failure as the foundation for innovation. Our STEM-driven strategy is embracing an emerging paradigm: use failure as the pathway to personal and financial success.
Ref: Adam Davidson, “Welcome to the Failure Age,” NY Times, 11/16/2014