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Why innovative companies celebrate their hiccups

Deborah Poole is the general manager at

You already know how to shop. So how can an online destination convince you that there are ways to do it better, find what you want faster and maybe even help you enjoy the process?

It's simple: innovation.

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In e-commerce, this means wowing the customer with features they didn't even know they wanted, but now that they've seen them, they can't live without. The caveat? Having to do this – over and over again.

Innovating means constant reinvention in the quest to surprise and delight customers. Often, it means developing products long before there is demand, and introducing beta products to the market before they're 100 per cent ironed out.

We take the risks, as individuals and as a company, because it's essential for growth and success.

For example, buying a bar stool doesn't sound like a complicated thing, but at Wayfair, we've been innovating on this experience since our earliest days. Founded in 2002, Wayfair made its mark by offering a breadth of products across an array of styles and price points customers couldn't find in their local furniture stores. The culture of innovation took hold early and with it, an embrace of risk and acceptance that not every early release is a finished product.

It is important to remember that innovation does not mean all attempts are a roaring success.

An early version of an algorithm our team created was designed to give personalized, style-specific recommendations to each shopper. Instead, it recommended a 72-inch cat tree. To everyone. To commemorate this, the team's manager purchased the towering cat tree and installed it in our (cat-free) office. It still stands as a totem to both the progress and setbacks that go hand-in-hand at any company committed to innovation.

The first time our engineering and design teams tried to create inspirational visual content using 3D rendering software, the initial results were less than impressive.

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The goal was to help customers better visualize a product on our site; however, the image was a slightly creepy living room with a hyper-realistic sofa in front of a fun-house-like staircase. It was not ready for prime time. It was also expensive, slow and decidedly worse than using the real-life photo studio we already had. It didn't qualify as a beta product; it was more like half an alpha. The team was undeterred. If anything, they were more motivated, because now they had something to beat.

A way for leadership to encourage a team to innovate is to celebrate wins, but also embrace those speed bumps along the way.

Wayfair's core value became "We're never done." However, it can be daunting to execute new projects where you may have no data or analytics to back up the bet you are making because you're inventing the future, and there's no playbook for that.

But tell your team to make a bet on the future. This type of work environment can be inspiring and a key motivator for advancement and their own professional success.

So what happened to the team who accidentally built the fun-house living room?

I recently attended a meeting where they challenged the audience to scrutinize two different photos of the same room. One was a new version of a digitally-created image from the 3D rendering software and the other was shot in a photo studio with physical furniture. We all failed in differentiating which photo was produced with the 3D technologies and which was taken on-set. Even the creative director who oversaw the design work couldn't remember – and now couldn't tell because the visualization looked so real. The missteps along the way made for a great story and were as much a part of the innovative process as the final result.

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When innovation is successful: Get your solution out in the world, find out how customers are utilizing it and then measure it.

So, what's next? Today, at, innovation means embracing augmented reality and virtual reality technologies to help conceptualize designs. This approach is not necessarily familiar to all customers, but we're betting it will be, soon. And after that? Well, we're never done.

Executives and human-resources experts share their views in the ongoing Leadership Lab series. Find more stories here and follow us @Globe_Careers.

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