#ASAE 22: “There Is No Innovation Without Failure”

Rather than seeing failure as something bad and scary, #ASAE22 keynoter Marcus Whitney urged association leaders to embrace it. After all, it is those obstacles and setbacks that that will ultimately lead to breakthroughs.

In the business world, it’s repeatedly been said: Do not fear failure.

Marcus Whitney, author and cofounder and partner of Jumpstart Health Investors, opened his keynote at the 2022 ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition on Monday morning by showing his failure. He played a video of a Jiu-Jitsu match loss, noting that success and innovation don’t always look like we imagine.

“A lot of times when we talk about innovation, the picture that we get in our head might be a skinny tech geek with a hoodie,” Whitney said. Referencing Theodore Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena” quote, Whitney added: “The reality about innovation is that it’s about the person who is actually in the arena, whose face is wet with sweat and blood, and who comes up short again and again.”

Whitney said he noticed two important themes when writing his book Create and Orchestrate: “The thing that stuck out most was how many times I failed. The other thing that stuck out was how many different stories I had inside of just this 20-year window. It wasn’t one continuous story. It was a story that started and ended, and led to another story that started and ended, and led into another story.”

Even more important, some of the failures that end a story lead to great innovations in the next story.

“There is no innovation without failure,” Whitney said. “Not only do you have to be OK with it, but you have to start to come to expect it, and know that when it arrives, you’re pretty close to the breakthrough.”

Whitney offered three lessons, culled from his life, to help associations innovate. First, “pray for constraint and clarity.” To illustrate this, Whitney shared that he dropped out of college and moved to Atlanta to pursue a rap career. There, he met his life partner, and they had a child. Failing to achieve hip-hop success, the couple moved to Nashville to be near her family. They were living in a hotel, under threat of weekly eviction as Whitney worked a low-paying job.

“Those constraints and that clarity are what’s responsible for everything that I’ve been able to do today, not an abundance of resources,” Whitney said. “It’s when my back was against the wall, I didn’t have a whole lot of choices, and I needed to focus and commit to something and be absolutely clear about why I was doing what I was doing—that was what made the difference.”

Three Lessons for Innovation

First, he encourages associations to take advantage of constraints. “The next time that you’re thinking, ‘We don’t have enough staff,’ or ‘enough time,’ or ‘enough in the budget,’ be grateful,” Whitney said. “That is going to kick in the inexhaustible resource that every single one of us has—which is your creativity. And that’s where the best decisions are going to come from. And that’s where the best stories are written.”

Whitney’s second piece of advice: “Cast a dream beyond your comfort.” He discussed his involvement in bringing professional soccer to Nashville. Whitney became a founding supporter of an amateur soccer team. After agreeing to be chair of its board, Whitney realized the team’s vision was too small. So, he came up with the “audacious goal” of being the first major league soccer club in Nashville. With the help of many people, that goal was accomplished.

“They were willing to believe in a goal bigger than any of us individually and bigger than they even thought they could dream,” Whitney said.

His final piece of advice is to “be courageous and classy.” Whitney said things were looking great in 2020. Then COVID-19 hit. Then George Floyd was killed.

“I had to ask myself what I was doing for society—not just serving on boards, but specifically what, with [my] unique power, what [am I] doing with it?” Whitney said.

He realized his role as a venture capitalist gave him unique access to movers and shakers in the healthcare industry, and he should tap into that. He published a letter reminding Nashville’s healthcare industry that its “success has roots in white supremacy,” calling on them to improve equity and diversity in the sector.

“It was scary,” he said. “Anything that you know is the right thing to do—that you have to do before it becomes the popular thing to do—is going to be very uncomfortable. And it will be very, very lonely in that moment. So, when that moment comes, just know that feeling that you have is absolutely appropriate, but it’s not a reason to not do it.”

In the wake of the letter and discussions in the Nashville healthcare industry, Whitney founded Jumpstart Nova, a venture fund dedicated to black healthcare companies.

“Remember that your power means nothing unless you have the courage to use it for good,” he said.

(Nick Hagen Photography)

Rasheeda Childress

By Rasheeda Childress

Rasheeda Childress is a former editor at Associations Now. MORE

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