Perhaps two of the greatest challenges faced by corporate innovators are failure and credit. The linkage between these two concepts is more profound than the oft-quoted proverb “success has many fathers, failure is an orphan.” Recurring failure leading to a stunning breakthrough is the stuff of legend in the innovation world, ranging from Edison’s numerous ineffective early light bulb designs that preceded his incandescent immortality to Steve Jobs’ well-publicized failures at NeXT computing prior to his triumphant return to Apple.
How an innovator responds to failure can determine the difference between mediocrity and greatness. Credit becomes a challenge once an innovation takes flight and discussions abound concerning who should be viewed as the originator of a given creation. In the corporate world, credit can range from an individual recognition of brilliance, such as Art Fry and the ubiquitous Post-It Note from 3M to the numerous successes of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) Team where individual names are less prominent.
The life story of Alfred Russel Wallace, as recounted masterfully in Iain McCalman’s Darwin’s Armada: Four Voyages and the Battle for the Theory of Evolution, provides insights for modern innovators concerning how to handle failure and credit.
As McCalman relates, Wallace was born in Wales in 1823 and led a peripatetic existence into his twenties due both to his family’s penury and his own changing desires and interests. Wallace finally settled on the profession that would define his imprint on history when he befriended an entomologist and, after a brief stint of collecting insects in England, went on a four-year trip to the Amazon. During his explorations on the Rio Negro, he faced dysentery, malaria, poisonous snakes, and swarms of insects and even lost his brother, Edward, who succumbed to yellow fever while awaiting Alfred’s return from the interior. Wallace nonetheless was able to collect thousands and thousands of specimens and took voluminous notes on the hundreds of different species he observed during his trip. Although he sent some of his findings to England in advance, the majority of his specimens accompanied him on the brig Helen which departed South America in 1852. Shortly into the voyage, the Helen caught fire and Wallace watched as the output from four long, difficult years of work went up in flames. Since he had collected duplicate specimens and planned to sell half of his take to fund the trip, Wallace was financially and scientifically ruined. He was only able to salvage a few of his notebooks and sketches prior to fleeing the ship, burning his hands while sliding down a rope into the longboat. Wallace had to watch the entire process from close range because the crew stayed tied up to the Helen as long as possible, hoping the flames would attract a passing vessel to rescue them. After 10 days at sea, a London-bound ship rescued the crew and took them home but encountered fierce storms and ran low on supplies which further compounded Wallace’s misery. Wallace arrived in London in a desolate state. He literally possessed nothing more than the shirt on his back, with nothing to show for his four years of work and no career prospects for the future.
At this point Wallace could have abandoned his naturalist dreams and chosen a different profession. Instead he stayed focused on his passion, helped somewhat by news from his agent that the lost collection was insured for 200 pounds. He used some of these funds to publish a book on his Amazonian findings, cobbling together the limited materials he had rescued from the Helen. The book was not well received and sold few copies. Wallace attended meetings of the Zoological and Entomological Societies and presented papers on his findings, hinting at the process of evolution in his observations on Amazonian butterflies without explicitly spelling out a theory of evolution. His continued work in the field caught the eye of the geologist Sir Roderick Murchison which paved the way for Wallace to obtain limited funding for continuing work as a naturalist abroad. Wallace could have returned to Brazil to re-trace his previous steps and collect specimens, but he chose to travel to the relatively untouched Malay Archipelago in search of a remote location with higher potential for entomology. Wallace leveraged the lessons from his previous expedition in preparing for the trip to the Malay Archipelago and dove into his preparatory studies with great intensity.
Over the course of several years in this new location, Wallace assembled the observations that would make him the first British scientist to posit in a publication the theory that animals descended from common ancestry and evolved into different species as a result of variation. Wallace’s most famous discovery came late in the trip when he was wracked up with malaria. He recalled Thomas Malthus’ Principles of Population and postulated that the inevitable outcome of exponentially increasing populations of animals is the survival of the fittest. Wallace gathered his thoughts into a paper titled “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type,” and sent it to Charles Darwin, who had been grappling with the same challenge for over two decades but, for a variety of reasons, had not yet published his thesis on evolution. Upon receiving Wallace’s letter, Darwin exclaimed that his originality in the thesis would be ruined and that he would not be seen as the creator of the theory of evolution. Darwin could have chosen to burn the letter and paper and claim he never received it, but he began work on his own publication on evolution. His key academic allies came up with an approach where Darwin and Wallace would present their conclusions to the Linnean Society in parallel, focusing on different aspects of the same question. In the end, however, history has shined the brightest light on Darwin and he is the name cited by schoolchildren who study evolution. Wallace’s name appears mostly as a postscript.
After eight years in the Malay Archipelago, Wallace returned to London and visited with Darwin. Wallace was effusive in his praise of Darwin and never sought priority for his own theory. Rather, he spoke of his own inferiority to Darwin and was happy to subordinate himself to Darwin in the ultimate quest to expand scientific knowledge.
Wallace’s life experience provides lessons for innovation in two areas:
The depth of Wallace’s initial failure surpasses anything that a modern innovator might experience in a corporate setting, but his response is edifying. Wallace stayed true to the field where he failed (entomology) but applied his skills to a new location (the Malay Archipelago). This new location was fortuitous in that in allowed him to see distinctions between Asiatic and Australian species, subsequently referred to as the “Wallace Line.” This permitted him to make observations and comparisons between the Amazon and the Malay Archipelago that ultimately enhanced his theory and made him successful in the long run. Sometimes a change of scenery can literally turn failure into triumph.
In the corporate world the innovator does not always receive credit for his or her accomplishments. In some cases, the innovator is part of a team that creates a successful innovation. In other cases, corporate maneuverings may mean that the true creator of a solution may not be recognized appropriately. Faced with the latter dilemma, Wallace proved honorable in acknowledging that his theory rested on the shoulders of the work of Darwin. Although Wallace’s name was not completely lost to posterity, the preeminence of Darwin in the field of evolution is unquestioned. Nonetheless, Wallace could have invested tremendous energies in fighting Darwin for ownership of the theory of evolution. Instead he focused his efforts on working with Darwin to advance the cause of science and push their common innovation forward, even though it meant that he would likely spend more time as a footnote than as the owner of evolution.
Iain McCalman, Darwin’s Armada: Four Voyages and the Battle for the Theory of Evolution (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010).
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Scott Bowden works on Innovation Programs for IBM Global Services.