Article: Failing your way to innovation: Institutionalizing risk-taking

Life @ Work

Failing your way to innovation: Institutionalizing risk-taking

The greatest mistake you can make in life is to continually fear you will make one- Elbert Hubbard
Failing your way to innovation: Institutionalizing risk-taking

“I failed my way to success”, said Thomas Edison. The man who accumulated 2,332 patents worldwide for his inventions, out of which 1,093 of Edison's patents were in the United States and rest were approved in countries around the globe. He succeeded one thousand times ensuring that it doesn’t work.  When questioned on his innumerable failures, he retorted that he hadn’t failed 10,000 times, but succeeded in finding 10,000 methods that wouldn’t work. He is a classic example to unearth the beauty and necessity of failures in each one of our life. It definitely hurts to fail, but the only way to succeed is a failure.

Institutionalize risk-taking

As children, we have failed constantly. From trying to take our first step and falling down, we have taken risks, stumbled, and then tried again. We have explored good and bad choices through play, falling down and trying to get back again with a smile as if nothing had happened. Scientifically, our brains are hardwired to learn through mistakes. Mistakes help us make predictions which take us along the scale of progress.

In the workplace of today, failure is not taken up in a purely positive way. The fear of failing limits boundaries. And by penalizing mistakes, you tend to create totally risk-averse employees. These employees will be too shy or nervous to try anything new and none of them will be able to sustain in absence of innovation in this ever changing volatile world. By choosing to play it safe and not taking a minimal risk, employees will go with repeating safer choices over and over again. Though this may not result in failure, the consequences may not be progressive for growth. For creating an innovative culture, accepting failure is necessary. From failure comes learning, iteration, adaptation, and building of new concepts. Almost all innovations are the result of prior learning from failures.

Psychological safety

Research suggests that Psychological safety makes a top team. Harvard business professor Amy Edmondson describes psychologically safe teams as ones where “people are less likely to focus on self-protection.” In fact, we do our best work when we feel safe enough to take risks and contribute without holding back. 

It’s fine to fail within a group. It is perhaps always safer to take the risk as a team. Setting this context, Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, Author of 'Happier' & Founder of Potentialife suggested the following ways to increase psychological safety at your workplace:

Model curiosity; ask lot of questions

Acknowledge your own fallibility. Disclose your own failures and what have you learned from them.

Encourage team members to discuss their own failures and ask questions.

Focus and reward on learning rather than outcome.


Making mistakes matures your brain. This in effect results in more efficient synapses and fundamentally altered neurons. Your brain actually expands on failure. In short, failure can actually make you smarter. It helps you to learn and grow. And many companies have known the benefits of institutionalizing Risk-taking by empowering their employees to make ‘fast mistakes’ but not ‘repeated mistakes’ while trying to do something new. Failures are inevitable. It is not about losing. It is perhaps a lesson on how to build and change it the next time to create real success stories. Keep going without the fear to fail and you will really find success and happiness soon!

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Topics: Life @ Work, #TechHR2017

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