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WHEN WILL WE LEARN TO EMBRACE FAILURE AS AN ESSENTIAL COMPONENT OF INNOVATION?

Posted by Tina Catling 20 June 2017 Innovation Consultancy

Innovation is in many ways tied to an organisation’s appetite for risk. Calculated risk, of course, but risk non the less. But what happens when risks do not pay off, miscalculations occur and ideas do not materialise into viable strategies or products? The tendency to equate the above with failure is rife, and yet in a society in which failure is seen as negative, reprehensible or indeed career-threatening, how can organisations expect their employees, managers or directors to put their neck on the line for innovation?

Is this intolerance and marginalisation of failure hampering progress in innovation? How can organisations learn to tolerate, or even encourage, failure in pursuit of larger, longer-term goals? Here are three ways organisations can begin to make the shift in culture that is required if innovation is to keep pace with demand for new ideas and increasing efficiency.

SHIFTING NORMS BY CELEBRATING FAILURE 

While failure may not automatically seem like something to be celebrated in and of itself, when seen as a step on the road to creativity, innovation and ultimately success, failure should in fact be seen as a positive.

This is exactly what has been argued by the inauguration of the world’s first Museum of Failure in Helsingborg, Sweden. Speaking to the Guardian back in April ahead of the museum’s opening, Dr Samuel West, the organisational psychologist behind the project, argued that ‘innovation requires failure. Learning is the only process that turns failure into success.’ 

In an article by Design Week, West explained that the idea sprung from the fact that he had grown tired of the many success stories of innovation, suggesting that ‘every single business magazine and academic article seems to glorify success at the expense of learning from failure.’ With research showing that ‘roughly 80-90% of innovation projects fail,’ this disjoint between reality and discussion is problematic.

West’s recognition of a need to create healthy dialogue around the subject of failure is a poignant one, and a journey that still has a long way to go. The Guardian’s comment that ‘not everyone is quite so keen to do a self-audit on their psychological flaws. Colgate refused to co-operate with West’s interest in the Colgate lasagne TV dinner,’ can be seen as just one indication of the deep-seated stigma that still surrounds failure in company culture.

STOP CULTURAL PUNISHMENT OF FAILURE

Another step that organisations can take to combat the negative connotations of failure is to readdress how this is dealt with internally at the level of company culture. Much more than an unsuccessful end product, failure is a wide ranging concept which includes initial ideas which never come to fruition, flawed processes and lost bids which should all be free from punishment.

Harvard Business Review (HBR) argued that this is a common mistake made by many organisations. While recognising that there is little space for ‘sloppy mistakes’ or ‘something that has dramatic repercussions for the business’, ‘the trick is to recognize that in the early stages of innovation, what at first appears to be failure is anything but.’

Writing for Inc.com, author and entrepreneur Paul Schoemaker argued that ‘mistakes allow for variation far beyond what was expected’, often leading to a better road to the end goal, but in order to ‘get those productive failures, you need to tolerate some silly and even stupid ones as well in your mistake portfolio.’

Schoemaker argues that the reason most organisations struggle to adopt a positive culture towards innovation is that ‘most managers pray at the altar of results rather than innovation.’ This has a knock on effect for things like employee promotion based on results, engagement levels and learning culture, which are essential elements for fostering innovation that need to be given time and space.

SPREAD THE MESSAGE TO YOUNGER GENERATIONS

Altering societal norms and organisational cultures is a long game. Shifts in outlook and behaviour will not appear overnight, but this is no reason the battle should not be undertaken. One way that organisations can ensure that their efforts to alter tolerance of failure are longstanding is by spreading the message to the younger generations who join the workplace. 

This is exactly the suggestion Mark Zuckerberg recently made in his speech to Harvard’s 2017 graduating class, telling those students due to set out into the world that ‘the greatest successes come from having the freedom to fail.’ Huffington Post contributor Ira Kalb said of Zuckerberg and other’s speeches that ‘what these very successful people are telling us is that failure is a great teacher and a necessary ingredient for innovation and success.’

Kalb then went on to explain that ‘companies need to continuously innovate or risk dying and killing the future to save the past,’ and there are arguably none more equipped to drive future success than members of the younger generation. Knowing that failure is both an acceptable and necessary part of working life is essential, and will help organisations to finally embrace failure as an essential component of innovation.

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