I often wonder what “that thing” is that great innovators share. It’s what allows them to break boundaries not just in their fields but in general about what we even conceive of as possible.

LONDON - OCTOBER 18: Richard Branson, head of the Virgin Group of companies, attends a celebrity event on October 18, 1990 in London.
LONDON – OCTOBER 18: Richard Branson, head of the Virgin Group of companies, attends a celebrity event on October 18, 1990 in London.

What mindsets are shared by innovative legends like Henry Ford and great innovators of today like Tesla and SpaceX mastermind Elon Musk and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson? Do these great innovators share anything with the scientists and engineers who broke boundaries decades ago during the Kennedy administration by making a reality of the seemingly impossible mission of putting a man on the moon?

Two common mindsets emerge:

  1. Failure is a good thing and is a critical part of innovation
  2. Nothing is impossible

What can we as business owners and leaders learn from these two shared philosophies, and how can we start to apply these concepts every day in our work?

Creating new habits

If you’re like me, failure doesn’t feel great. It’s often perceived in the business world as the output of skill set gaps or critical thinking errors.

Ford and Musk challenge us to think differently about failure:

“Failure is simply the opportunity to start again, this time more intelligently.”–Henry Ford

“If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”–Elon Musk

In these views, failure is the output of pushing beyond your comfort zone about what you already know. You learn from it and do it again… better.

How do we put this into action when a lot of the business world may not think this way? Musk tells us:

“What makes innovative thinking happen?…I think it is really a mindset. You have to decide.”

But what next? How do you operationalize that mindset? One of my great mentors over the years–a former Partner at Deloitte Consulting, where I began my career–once told me:

“To think differently you can certainly change your mindset, but you then have to change your habits to support your mindset.”

Over the last year, I have taken this approach to incorporate Ford’s and Musk’s mindset around failure and innovation into my own consulting practice and support it with new business habits.

To build my new habits, every week I started targeting something that we had been doing the same way for awhile. Anything was fair game–a methodology, process, service, or strategy.

Even if we were getting good business results, I challenged myself to push my thinking about it outside of my comfort zone far enough to where I would have a high probability of failing (hopefully somewhat gracefully).

To ease into it when I started, I identified things that were not incredibly significant to my business. In other words, if I failed–which I often did–I wouldn’t have to come home and tell my wife that purchasing lottery tickets was our new personal finance strategy.

As hokey as my approach may seem, what I have found is that I have become significantly less worried about failing. Every time I do it, I learn something that I can apply in a lot of places with my work.

Equally importantly, I have become more willing to push further outside of my comfort zone each time.

By forming new habits about failure, I have taken small steps on that journey towards an innovative thinking mindset and operational reality for my business.

Practicing the “impossible”

Branson and Musk are both well known for their defiance to submit to the belief that anything is impossible and instead focusing their minds around making the impossible possible.

It’s the same philosophy that the engineers used in the mission to the moon decades ago–now known as “Moonshot Thinking.”

Similar to notions of failure, this concept isn’t applicable only in grandiose journeys of perceived impossibility–like Branson’s Virgin Galactic with it’s audacious goal of passenger flights into space, or Musk’s SpaceX long term goals to send manned missions to Mars.

It can be applied in everyday business as well–even on mundane things.

I have a client who, one month into her leadership role, was asked to find $15 million in savings from her budget, do it fast, and do it without cutting people. Given the circumstances in the company at the time, it seemed like an impossible request.

Through persistently creative thinking and a belief that this seemingly impossible request was indeed possible, she found a whopping $54 million.

What might have been more important was the impact on her leadership team.

Since then, her team has started approaching difficult business predicaments with a new mindset–often citing “the $54 million” project, opening the doors to what might have been previously viewed as far-fetched solutions.

Henry Ford brought both concepts together for us when he simply said:

“Whether you think you can or think you can’t–you’re right.”