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At Communitech, “Failure” Embraced as a Step in the Innovation Process

Jun 02, 2015
Sarah Dimick
Sarah Dimick
Senior Research Associate
Technology and Innovation

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to join the members of the Council for Information Technology Executives (CITE) at their winter meeting in Kitchener–Waterloo, which was held at the Communitech Hub. The Hub is a repurposed, former Tannery warehouse in Kitchener’s downtown. Its facilities include an impressive event centre, the Hub Interactive Virtual Environment (HIVE), and over 50,000 square feet of space loosely divided into partner areas, collaboration spaces, and work spaces. Additionally, the University of Waterloo’s Velocity Garage (a space where students and alumni can connect with mentors and kick-start their companies) is situated at one end of the building.

The Hub is set up like a club house; it’s open and inviting. Bold colours, artistic graffiti, and Christie digital LCD panels cover the walls. And, interestingly, the walls between resident companies—where they exist—are glass. Each partner zone not only showcases something incredible the companies are working on at the moment, but it also feels like each company is competing with the others for the coolest workspace. That air of competition works to build the energy of the place. Walking through this space, you can’t help but feel the buzz—the energy of this collection of creators and innovators at play while at work.

Communitech’s mandate is to help technology companies of all sizes to start, grow, and succeed, and through the Hub, Communitech’s ability to do that has skyrocketed. The space itself is a showcase of best practices in setting up an innovation hub—it has facilitated a strong collaborative community that is essential to innovation.

Beyond this community, there is something more that we witnessed at Communitech—the partners, clients, members, and users all had a sense of fearlessness and an entrepreneurial drive.

The openness to failure as a possible, if not likely, outcome from each tested idea, project, or prototype was expressed again and again during our time at Communitech. Part of this acceptance of failure has to do with a reframing of what failure actually is. In businesses that run on fairly standard principles, investments in moving from idea to commercialized product or service are made with a keen eye on the projected returns and, ultimately, the bottom line. This framing makes failure terrifying, for it is a punishable offence, and generally no one wants to lose their job!

At the Hub, failure takes on a new meaning. When you understand failure as an action to try, test, explore, and learn from the process, and when you are rewarded for those trials and learnings, you are much more free to innovate. A “failed” prototype is simply a step in the process. This view of failure drastically changes what people are able to do.

There is a lot that has been said about the entrepreneurial drive within the Hub. It is something we witnessed firsthand—a tenacity to try and try again, and to connect the dots of disruptive new technologies with potential products and services. One of our presenters spoke to the heart of it: legacy.

Entrepreneurs, when they step out of the day-to-day hustle, have a clear sense of the impact they are making—their vision, whether it’s for wireless boardrooms or an optimistic and satisfied workforce. As one presenter pointed out, the intuitive knowledge and belief that they have “something” keeps them showing up every day. This vision of the legacy they are building is the driving force behind their tenacity.

We have written about the need to learn effectively from failure as part of the innovation process, and it is gratifying to see this in action within the Hub. The creating of spaces to bring together entrepreneurs, academics, and potential mentors was a key success factor we identified from our visit to MIT, and it is good to see this being implemented on Canadian soil.

I’m looking forward to our next visit to the Hub with our Council for Innovation and Commercialization on June 5, when we’ll dig deeper into the entrepreneurial drive and innovation culture of this unique region to see what else we can learn and share.

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The Council of Chief Information Officers (CCIO) provides the opportunity to discover how leading-edge private and public sector CIOs are addressing emerging challenges and building strategic advantage through information technology. The Council addresses executive leadership challenges such as strategy, change management, and innovation, through a CIO lens. By design, the Council allows for deep exploration of emerging topics and the formation of meaningful peer-CIO relationships, all in a closed door, private setting.

The Council for Information Technology Executives (CITE) helps strengthen capacity to effectively address the challenges of today’s rapidly changing business environment and stay competitive. CITE brings together senior IT executives to investigate and discuss leading-edge issues related to the field of information technology. This Council acts as the common voice of both private and public sector organizations to develop best practices, nurture the growth of Canadian IT specialists, and partner with influential bodies to increase awareness of the IT profession. The Council is made up of CIOs from small and medium sized organizations, and senior IT executives from large organizations who are direct reports to a CIO.

The Council for Innovation and Commercialization (CIC) provides innovation executives in Canadian firms with the contacts, concepts, tools and learning experience to improve innovation performance. Through networking with peers and facilitated discussion, members share experiences, best practices, and methodologies thus strengthening their innovation capacity. The Council is a broad-based membership spanning innovation infrastructure in Canada, including SMEs, large businesses, non-profit organizations, academia, and governments. This ensures that members have the opportunity to explore different facets of innovation in Canada while at the same time achieving focus on the needs of their own organization.