There’s a prevalent and long-perpetuated myth about innovators, that they are persistent; they don’t give up. Renowned innovators like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison have even said it of themselves, crediting their success in part on their persistence. But it’s at best a poor choice of words and at worst a fundamental misunderstanding of what innovation entails, even by some of its best practitioners.
I recently sat on a panel of innovation experts and entrepreneurs that included a R & D executive with one of the largest medical technology companies in the world. When asked what she looked for when she hired someone, one of the first things she mentioned was persistence, giving it considerable emphasis.
I couldn’t resist disagreeing with her and using Edison as my example. We’ve all heard the stories of how Edison and his team of engineers tried hundreds, by some accounts more than a thousand, materials before finding one that would work as the filament in his electric light bulb. So, the argument goes, he succeeded because he persisted. It’s utterly misleading. (Not the story, the takeaway.) If Edison and his colleagues had chosen one material that they particularly favored and spent all their time trying to make it work, that would have been persistent—not very bright, but persistent. They achieved success because they were willing to experiment and fail over and over and over again, in order to discover the solution they needed.
What Edison did throughout his career was systematically lead his team to failure upon failure upon failure…almost ad infinitum, becoming immensely wealthy as a result. Edison’s most important invention may have been modern research and development itself, and the key principle behind it is not persistence but rather systematic experimentation.
Simply being persistent is the antithesis of innovation. Webster’s defines persist as, “to go on resolutely or stubbornly in spite of opposition, importunity or warning.” That’s not what innovators do! Innovators don’t just keep their heads down and refuse to take, “No,” for an answer; they pick up on the. “No’s,” quickly and try an alternative approach. They constantly adjust and revise and adapt in order to reach the breakthroughs they need.
I’m not saying that persistence has no value. There are times when it can be an admirable quality. What I’m saying is that persistence rarely leads to successful innovation unless it’s coupled with the exploration of multiple options, and it’s that willingness to explore and experiment that most distinguishes great innovators, not their persistence.
The medtech executive was quick to jump in and say that yes, of course she understood the difference and wanted people who knew how to find solutions and stay flexible in their thinking. I assured her that I knew that she knew that’s what she meant. (Though I think she was still annoyed with me.)
The problem with persistence is that it can just as easily be a hindrance as an advantage. It’s entirely possible to be persistently wrong. By many accounts, both Ford and Edison could be quite stubborn at times and not always in productive ways. It may be that their confusion over the role persistence played in their own success made them prey to this common character flaw. For some reason we frequently credit persistence for our success when what we should be crediting is courage and risk taking and creativity. It’s a vastly different approach.
The next time you face a challenge—any challenge—you may need to be persistent, but you will almost certainly need to be flexible and creative and willing to consider a variety of approaches if you want the best outcome. That’s what innovators do (despite what they may sometimes say).
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