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Failure as Precursor to Innovation

Creating an environment where failure is not the end of the world isn’t about letting people make silly mistakes, it’s about defining what constitutes smart failure.

Failure is the taboo, unacknowledged elephant in every organization — especially in larger companies. When organizations don’t allow their employees to fail, they are paying lip service to innovation. It really is that simple.

Innovation is essentially risk taking and success cannot be guaranteed. Innovation cannot happen without failure. Look at Thomas Edison, he failed 1,093 times before developing his version of the light bulb. Would your company have let someone fail so often? Probably not.

The education system in most countries instills a fear of failure right from the beginning. It’s about writing tests to which there can only be one answer, and retelling the teacher what they’ve said.

It is this mind set which organizations have to contend with as they try to encourage their employees to innovate. This culture flows right into many organizations as employees often try and hide mistakes for fear of reprimand. But if your mistake is made public, then the offender can look forward to a not so glowing performance review — which discounts anything the person may have learned from the project because success after failure comes from pressing in.

Define failure
Creating an environment where failure is not the end of the world isn’t about letting people make silly mistakes, it’s about defining within an organization’s specific context what constitutes smart failure — an accountant still has to ensure the books balance and deviation from that isn’t what I am talking about. I am talking about an environment that encourages curiosity and can manage the outcomes both positive and negative of that.

In a Harvard Business Review article, Doug Sundheim says that businesses have to define smart failure so people know the acceptable boundaries within which to fail. If the boundaries aren’t defined, then all failure looks risky and it will kill creativity and innovation.

Failure is learning
A learning organization is one in which new thinking is encouraged and old thinking is challenged by all people across the business. A huge enabler of this kind of organization is for employees to be freed from the fear of failure.

For organizations to really say they have a culture of innovation, they have to not only accept failure, but celebrate it. Car manufacturer, Tata has the “Dare to try” award for the most thoughtful and well-executed failures. When it started the award it only had a few entries. After the first year, it had over 240 teams enter. It’s about making it okay to fail which gives people the confidence to keep trying to not merely get by, but to do something great.

Transparency
Warren Buffet once said that when the tide is low, that’s when you see who has been swimming naked and that is such an apt statement. Organizations measure employees’ achievement of objectives, but nobody reflects on the impact of these successes, and whether they are really successes or merely ticked boxes. This culture hides mediocrity and presents it as success.

Taking risks is about a future focus and organizations that don’t allow employees to fail, may find success in the short term but will struggle to navigate the future.

In the current tough economic environment we’re in, the only way to succeed is to do the extraordinary — it is business unusual and extraordinary unfortunately comes from trial and error.

Mbali Ndandani is a Johannesburg, South Africa-based communications consultant.

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