“It’s not what we do, but how we do it.” This is the solid advice of the 2017 Bill Daniels Ethical Leader of the Year Award Patrick Hamill, founder and CEO of Oakwood Homes. I had the privilege of hearing Hamill and other business leaders speak at the 2017 State of Small Business hosted by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

The purpose of the event is to provide an economic forecast of the small business environment in the seven county Denver Metro area. And yes, the economy in Colorado as a whole is growing, with Fort Collins leading the charge at an employment growth rate of 4.3% in the first 9 months of 2017.

In the Denver Metro area alone, the population from both natural increase and net migration is increasing by 1,000 people per week. Of those that are migrating into the region, 50% are between the ages of 18 and 34, our primary workforce.

But it is not the statistics of a booming local economy that will stick with me regarding this event. It is the phrases “fail fast” and “fail efficiently” spoken by panelists Bill Farris of NREL and Brett Peterson of CU Innovations, Anschutz Medical Campus.

In business discourse today, you cannot throw a rock without hitting the word innovation. There is not an entrepreneur, businesses executive, or employee who is not affected by the goal to be innovative. But what really is innovation and how do you achieve it? That is the question on everyone’s mind. We are all looking for a concrete example or a clear, step-by-step path that will help us to accomplish innovation.

For the most part, the panelists, which also included Joe Troutman from EnerSys Advanced Systems, identified elements that many other publications, business leaders, and consultants have attributed to innovation:

  • It starts with leadership
  • Think outside the box and cultivate innovative ideas everywhere, even from other industries
  • It’s about people and process
  • Identify creative people and empower them through an encouraging environment
  • Recognize your limitations and work to collaborate and partner with those that can fill the gaps

It was the recommendation to fail fast, though, that peaked my interest. How does one fail fast and isn’t the goal to succeed? Ultimately, yes. However, when you have an idea, or a technology, or a product that you feel is innovative, Farris argues that it is essential to test the idea with the customer before you even begin to write a business plan.

Peterson supports this advice by highlighting that in the process of taking the preliminary innovation to the end user for feedback, you can refine and reconfigure. Thus, you fail fast and recover even faster, taking an innovation that is stronger, with more potential to market.

Innovation looks different for every company. There is not straightforward path or methodology to follow. The key is to adopt a mindset to foster it. Don’t be afraid to fail. But if you do, fail fast.