How to use failure to drive innovation

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Everybody recognizes that failure plays is an important role in innovation but there is a lack of structured advice about how to encourage and use failure in a practical way. Below are some thoughts about how failure can be used in a practical way:

1) Remove the stigma from the word failure Failure is a word that has a lot of negative connotations and is a word that many people are uncomfortable using. In a recent interview I asked applicants “what was their greatest failure” and many replied that they did not like the word and did not associate anything they did with failure. If conversely I had asked “when have you ever tried anything new”, none of them would reply “I have never tried anything new in my life”. And yet this is precisely what they are saying by saying they never failed. Nothing is ever achieved successfully on it’s first attempt so any attempt to try or learn anything new will involve some failures along the way. We need to reclaim the word and recognize it’s importance as a developmental step.

2) Encourage the sharing of failure If you are trying to encourage innovation, there will inevitably be failures along the way. By encouraging people to talk about it and to share their stories of failure, the group or organization as a whole can learn much faster. If the same mistakes are being repeated over and over again in isolation, it makes the learning process much harder and much slower. The sharing of failure needs to be seen as an important contribution to the success of the group and the success of the organisation.

3) Fail often and fail small Where failures become catastrophic, they are often very large failures and can result in the destruction of an organization (e.g. Barings Bank, NHS University, etc). Even when the organization survives, a catastrophic failure can seriously damage an organization’s reputation (e.g. BP, Nasa, etc). The trick is to iterate quickly so that any failures happen quickly and at a small level. By encouraging experimentation and innovation at a small scale, the lessons can be learned before significant resources are invested.

4) Make failure survivable for the person and the organisation Linked to the previous point, the board and management team of an organization need to make sure that failures do not destroy the organization and so this needs to be managed in a way that encourages failure but at a small enough scale so that learning can happen. Equally individuals who fail must be protected and possibly praised for their innovation. If a culture emerges that failure is met with punishment, then people will quickly learn to avoid doing anything new or innovative and this can be far more damaging to the organization as a whole.

If we can learn to reduce the stigma around failure, openly share our failure stories and learn how to fail fast and often, then we will be well on the road to creating truly innovative organizations and teams.


AlanK 26 July 2012 at 01:15  

I agree that we do not spend enough time learning from failure. In 2005 Co-Active in the SW of England published 'Learning from Failure: Lessons in how to strengthen and build the social enterprise Sector'. It was written by John Pearce and I contributed two case studies. Worth a look, I think.
Alan Kay

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