Looking for Innovation? Make Some Mistakes

Last Updated Apr 30, 2009 8:08 PM EDT

Mistakes, as we all know, can be costly, embarrassing and in some cases very difficult to fix. However, mistakes can also be a launch pad for innovation, and companies should accept them as part of any new venture, according to Marissa Mayer, Google's Vice President of Search Products & User Experience.

In a speech given at Stanford awhile back, Mayer delves into Google's history to illustrate this point:

"When we were small, we launched really rough things that weren't very good all the time," she explains. "But the key is iteration. When you launch something, can you learn enough about the mistakes that you made and learn enough from your users that you ultimately iterate really quickly?"

Mistakes can lead to successful reinvention
To show the good that can come from mistakes, Mayer points to the examples of Apple and the pop legend Madonna, two brands that have stayed popular because of their constant reinvention and innovation.

"How do they do it?" Mayer asks. "The answer is, they don't do it being perfect every single time. There's lots of mess ups along the way."

Citing Apple's Newton computer, Mayer explains how this failure sparked the company to improve future offerings. Mayer also points out some of Google's less-than-stellar first tries, such as the original version of Google Video, which didn't allow users to watch clips, but only search closed captions. Needless to say, Google quickly fixed this mistake and gave its users what they wanted.

Let your customers guide you
As her company did with Google Video, Mayer advocates getting your products out there and then letting your customers help fine tune them. She relates a story about launching Google News. Her team was deadlocked as to whether they should sort items by date or location. When they launched, users emailed to say they wanted the ability to sort by date.

"The users answered this question 100 to 1 really easily for us, and it turned out that it was really the right thing to do, to just get the product out there and then have the users tell us where it was most important for us to spend our time," Mayer says.

  • Stacy Blackman

    Stacy Sukov Blackman is president of Stacy Blackman Consulting, where she consults on MBA admissions. She earned her MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University and her Bachelor of Science from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Stacy serves on the Board of Directors of AIGAC, the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants, and has published a guide to MBA Admissions, The MBA Application Roadmap.