The permission to fail is a powerful and, sadly, scarce force in the traditional media business today.
Too many companies prefer to be reactive rather than proactive to change. They cut costs and resources rather than reliably earmark funds for research and development. Lessons learned from a failed attempt can be as valuable as a successful outcome.
Thomas Edison recognized the value in failure. The underestimated byproduct of two years of failed experiments to invent a lighting system was learning from 2,000 ways how not to make a light bulb, he would say.
There is too little evidence of creative trial and error or discovery in the television and film businesses. Television networks and film studios generally maintain costly, tightly controlled development processes, even as consumers take their creative endeavors directly to the open Net, where the viral masses quickly judge them a hit or miss.
In prime time, where so many series routinely fail every season, programs are produced at the same high prices and in virtually same manner as always -- as if cancellation was not the inevitable end game. Hitting it big with one or two golden series remains the goal -- especially when Netflix and Amazon are the new "syndicators" paying big bucks for reruns.
Television's program development system remains largely devoid of core incubator creativity, where cost-effective risk and failure can render something new.
The same generally is true in theatrical films. In response to tough economic times, the big screen has become a safe haven for tried-and-true formulas and character franchises as movie studios seek to minimize box office losses. Ironically, the recently released Harry Potter finale is a reminder that the record $7 billion franchise would not be possible if Time Warner had not taken the risk more than a decade ago on an unknown commodity from a coffeehouse author. That's as close to creative pass-fail as Hollywood's big players get, aside from Pixar and DreamWorks, where innovation is a corporate mandate.
Steady investment risk that accepts failure as the price for huge dividends is more evident among tech-media hybrid companies.
The next version of Windows available in 2012, designed for tablets and marking its biggest departure ever, is the product of Microsoft's failed and successful experimentation over many years, according to Business Insider. The same is true of Microsoft's Kinect, which has steadily gained popularity and adoption by game-playing consumers, marketers and content producers through endless cycles of innovation. From its launch, Kinect has been a favorite relatively inexpensive, mainstream tool of "programmers, roboticists, tinkerers," research scientists and other experimenters, as pointed out in a recent New York Times story.
Originally developed as a $150 Xbox console three-dimensional add-on, Microsoft now provides toolkits for noncommercial users to develop their own applications and experiments in areas stretching from home automation and manufacturing to the performing arts.
Indeed, the most redeeming aspect to placing affordable, functional digital technology in the hands of consumers is that it perpetuates a Petri dish mindset that hinges on try, fail, succeed and repeat.
The recent unveiling of the new Google+ 'Facebook killer' instantly dredged up memories of the company's failed social media effort Buzz. Like many other shortfall efforts from Google labs, Buzz was not so much an unsuccessful attempt at social media as a means to a better end -- just like Google Wave and Google Health.
Timing will make Google's Buzz experience worthwhile. In a field of intense competitors that includes Apple, Facebook and Microsoft, Google is the only player to leverage both social media and an operating system -- Android, which is another example of tireless trial and error. Unlike most companies, Google's innovation culture encourages and rewards trial and error as the life blood of future growth. It's the norm and it is expected.
On another level, Google Ventures is investing $200 million in start-ups recognizing that while only a fraction will pay off, trying is everything. Google and Amazon lead a growing chorus of media-tech hybrid companies investing nearly $600 million in start-ups the first quarter of this year to foster innovative risk-taking that could result in the next big thing, according to the National Venture Capital Assn.
Permission to fail in order to eventually succeed offers the promise to create not only new products but entrepreneurial thinking and visionary leadership to challenge and change conventions. What traditional media -- and business in general -- need is to subsidize playgrounds where enterprise and invention are routinely encouraged.
At this pivotal economic and tech juncture, television and other traditional media need places where employees can approach new concepts with the tenacity and wonder of a jungle gym, knowing it's OK to pick themselves up and try again, applying what they learned from a fall. All it takes is remembering the confidence-building exhilaration of such youthful experiences -- and run with it.