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Wave Goodbye: A Lesson in Innovation and Failure | Business

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Wave Goodbye: A Lesson in Innovation and Failure

Only a year ago, finding a Google Wave invite in your inbox was a much coveted techie win. When I received mine, it was a little bit like Nerd Christmas had finally arrived. Breathlessly opening the email, I clicked on the link taking me to my shiny new social networking toy, ready to learn all its wonders. An hour later, I was still confused and, frankly, a bit bored.

What was Google Wave exactly? I’m not sure. Sort of a social network-collaboration tool-instant messenger-news feed on speed, I think. For its advocates, Wave’s strength was this lack of definition. For the rest of us, this wishy-washy concept was its greatest weakness. And, because of this general lack of understanding, Google Wave has been put to out to pasture.

All is not lost, though, for Google Wave lovers (do these people really exist?). The largely Australian-developed product will stay up through the end of the year and, according to Google, may be built into other projects in development.

Still, everyone can generally agree, Wave was a big fat failure. But is this such an awful thing? Maybe not.

Any successful business knows the importance of failure, especially when it comes to innovation. Wave’s failure offers some valuable lessons for Google…and the rest of us.

  1. Innovation is not Certainty’s BFF. Being an innovator is a little bit like being crazy–you’ve got the wings strapped on and you leap off the cliff hoping you soar or, at very least, have a net to catch you. Innovators create without any guarantees that an idea will work. And, even if it does, who knows if it will have actual value. Even a company like Google, known for its wealth of talented employees and deep pockets for invention, had not figured out a way to determine beforehand if a market for Wave existed.

  2. Some types of uncertainties can be resolved early, many can not. Sometimes the only true way to find out if your idea has merit is to make the investment and see. Google set out to pioneer a risky project and (very) publicly launched it so it could see how the market reacted and learn from the experience. Of course, launching a product when all eyes are watching for any hint of weakness is daunting, but, should it succeed, the rewards can be staggering.

  3. Sometimes success is defined in ways that have nothing to do with the actual idea succeeding. Developing a better process, streamlining a technique, building the infrastructure for future ideas, or inspiring your team to try new things without fear of failure are all worthy outcomes of a tried-and-failed launch. By launching Wave, Google proved to existing and potential employees, customers and competitors that the company values innovation. When recruiting the best and brightest talent is more difficult than ever, potential employees are drawn to organizations that allow them to take risks and explore their creativity, and the development of innovative projects helps retain them.

  4. Failure is the best way to succeed. The first step in innovation is almost always a big ol’ failure. Historically, many of the most innovative products and services are built on the rubble of bad ideas, failed attempts, and unexpected roadblocks. Organizations that learn to accept and deal with these failures can become pillars of leadership, with cultures that have a high tolerance for risk and staff that doesn’t become paralyzed by second-guessing.

  5. Know how to tell when to pull the plug. Good managers of innovation develop clear metrics to measure performance of a product launch and are not squeamish when it comes to shutting it down. The ability to recognize a failing project and reallocate the intellectual and financial resources its consuming quickly to other more promising endeavors is critical to innovation success. Google Wave had a year to gain traction. When it didn’t, Google cut its losses and is focusing on the next big thing. In fact, some of Wave’s technology is already being applied to the communication and collaboration features of already successful products like GMail and Docs.

Of course, Google is not exactly the Average Joe of business. Unlike many organization, where big risks can make or break them, Google has the resources to tinker with new ideas relatively risk-free, seeing how 98 per cent of their revenue comes from advertising…the rest of their stuff is essentially a hobby. Smaller companies and managers, especially those without alternative revenue streams, take a much bigger risk with innovation.

But, of course, true innovators love a good risk. Even those that end in failure.