Failure As An Innovation Strategy

Failure may be the world’s greatest teacher, but in the corporate world, I’ve seen very little evidence of us paying much heed to it. We hear industry titans talk about failing all of the time. We hear them tell us that taking those early risks paid off in ways unimaginable.

But interestingly, in most corporate cultures that we’ve studied and worked with, there is very little tolerance for failure. Most organizations don’t like to talk about failure, they don’t challenge their people to try new things and take smart risks.

There is a clear difference between smart risks and risk or just doing things for the sake of doing them. The distinction lies in the preparation phase and in the after action review. Smart risks are risks taken with proper thought and planning, there are mechanisms put in place to capture the learning in an attempt to understand what worked and what didn’t.

It’s not a risk that is intentionally set up to fail, but the company goes in knowing that there’s a good chance that it may fail. Employees leading the effort are prepped, they understand what’s at stake, but they also should feel secure in the knowledge that if they do fail, the rewards for trying are greater than the penalties.

Too often we see organizations create cultures that cause inertia. Employees want to try new things, the company says they want employees to push the envelope, but when reality hits, the employees know that the prudent and easy thing to do is to sit back and continue with business as usual. The reality is that they know failure is something that can destroy a career. It can impede career progression.

Why push it, when the easy thing to do is to let it ride, keep doing what’s been done, make incremental progress, look busy and put some points on the board? This is what most organizations reinforce. This is the type of behavior they incent. They unknowingly incent the least common denominator, they aren’t creating cultures that view failure as an acceptable precedent for progress. In short, they are killing the very thing they say they seeking to grow … a culture of innovation

Take a look at your structures and talk to your employees, I’m sure most will tell you that running the engine is more acceptable than trying to build a new one. Learn to let failure teach your organization and you’ll start to see progress. Failing fast can result in real-time innovation, and can drive employee engagement, if leaders have a passion for success that is greater than their fear of failure.

If you don’t believe me, talk to Bill Gates.

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