Why Embracing Failure can Fuel Innovation

Posted by jartese on Oct 28, 2013 11:10:03 AM

Join us tomorrow as Stefan Lindegaard shares his thoughts on how we must Embrace Failure to Build a Stronger Innovation Culture

There is a growing awareness among business executives that innovation leads to growth and future profitability. Because of this, many companies are struggling to foster change in their corporate culture. The problem is that many corporate cultures are detrimental to the very innovation that they want to create. Corporate cultures tend to be performance based. Results are what count, and there is no room for mistakes. The problem is that failure is often the path to innovation. Corporate managers need to change their attitude toward failure before truly innovative change can occur.

Failure Fuels Innovation
Most people try to avoid failure or look to assign blame for mistakes. Very few embrace failure as a way of learning. There is a long history of failures and mistakes that have led to massive innovative changes. For example, Alexander Fleming's discovery of the antibacterial properties of the fungus penicillin was completely accidental. It was the result of mistakenly leaving petri dishes unattended for two weeks. Thomas Edison experimented with thousands of filaments before he found the one that would work to make a light bulb that was both long-lasting and bright. It took years of failed experiments to produce this amazing result.

There is ample evidence that failures can lead to success. We develop better ways of doing things by learning from our mistakes. Managers with little tolerance for mistakes and failures create a culture that stifles creativity. Employees will not risk making a mistake if their performance will suffer. In order to foster innovation, managers need to give employees more freedom to experiment and find the best way of doing things.

Frequent Experimentation Leads to Success
Obviously, the focus cannot be on trying to fail. It is repeated experimentation that will eventually lead to success. When Edison was working on the light bulb, he hoped that each iteration would yield the result he was looking for. He deliberately tried as many experiments as possible so the best solution would emerge rapidly. He did not let the repeated failures deter him from continued experimentation. He was confident that the best result would come eventually. A modern corporate manager might have looked at Edison as unproductive. He might have ordered Edison to stop playing around and get some results. But then he would have missed out on the biggest and most profitable result of all – the first commercially viable light bulb. The key to innovation is to create an environment where such experimentation can flourish.

Creating a Culture of Innovation
Radical innovative changes do not come from nowhere. They only come from an environment where workers feel free to experiment with their work. Employees must trust their managers in order to be able to experiment. If managers are constantly punishing employees for mistakes, this undermines the trust required to innovate. Employees must believe that they are true partners with their employer in creating a valuable product or service. Managers must be open to diverse ways of doing things. If one right way is imposed on the workplace, the innovative spirit will wither and die. Management must consider failure an acceptable risk and trust its employees. Then the employees will feel like they have the freedom to experiment and play. Innovation will flourish in this environment.

Managers must balance results and experimentation. The typical emphasis in today's business environment is on results. Managers should err on the side of allowing employees to experiment if they really want to fuel innovations. They must stop viewing failures as completely unproductive and begin to view them as experiments that eventually lead to profitable changes.

Topics: Innovation Insights

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