One of the most important things an organisation can do to drive innovation is to understand and learn from failure
You give associates the freedom to succeed, you also need to give them leeway to fail
“Failure is not an option.” This phrase has become increasingly commonplace in recent years. But, where did it come from?
Most attribute it to Gene Kranz, mission director at the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA), during the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission in 1970. But the truth is that Kranz isn’t documented as ever having said “Failure is not an option.” The phrase comes courtesy of the Hollywood scriptwriters for the 1995 Ron Howard film, Apollo 13, in which Ed Harris played Kranz. The writers came up with “failure is not an option” after interviewing people from Mission Control, who spoke of dealing with stressful situations in which lives hang in the balance. And, it perfectly captures the attitude and tenacity that enabled Kranz and his team at NASA to learn from the multiple near-misses, unsuccessful attempts at fixes, and unprecedented challenges that arose as they worked tirelessly to save the spacecraft and the three astronauts on board.
For all the bravado that “failure is not an option” implies, the reality is that Kranz and his team failed repeatedly during the mission. But, with each failure they gained valuable information and knowledge that contributed to their ultimate success.
The concept of learning from, and even encouraging failure, isn’t new. Soichiro Honda, the founder of Honda, said, “Many people dream of success. Success can only be repeated if achieved through repeated failure and introspection. Success represents the 1 per cent of work that results from the 99 per cent that is called failure.” Legendary statesman Winston Churchill had a similar thought: “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” More recently, the past CEO of Procter and Gamble, arguably one of the most innovative companies in the world, said, “I think of my failures as a gift.”
The message is clear: While we like to believe that failure isn’t an option, the reality is that it’s unavoidable. What’s more, it is something we should embrace!
Embrace failure? Really?
How can this be? Failure is to be avoided at all costs. Failure is frightening. Imagine an organisation that experiences one dismal failure after another. Out of business!
But, what matters is the ability to understand and learn from failure. In fact, it’s one of the most important things an organisation can do to drive innovation.
Innovation on its part can be accurately viewed as an act of leadership. However, a recent DDI study states that only about 40 per cent of employees felt that their leaders were displaying innovation behaviours. The most prominent derailer was aversion to risk.
How to get riskier
So, what can organisations and their leaders do to become less risk-averse and accept failure?
1. Don’t punish ‘honest’ failures. Instead, think about ways you can reward them! When you give associates the freedom to succeed, you also need to give them leeway to fail. A recent Wall Street Journal article called “Better Ideas through Failure” told how two organisations, Grey, a large advertising agency, and SurePayroll, a payroll service for small companies, give out formal and frequent “failure awards” to their people. An interesting concept and a rare and unique idea..”
2. Design for failure. Many organisations try to succeed every time by coming up with what they deem to be a big idea, making it as perfect as possible, and then testing it under optimal conditions. A better approach is to make “little bets,” as championed by Peter Sims, who wrote a book on innovation with that title. Making little bets entails running multiple small experiments, and then choosing typical or even adverse conditions for pilot programmes.
3. Learn from failure — and keep going. The end goal of failure is not more failure. The goal is to dissect, in an open and transparent environment, what went wrong and learn lessons that can be applied next time around. You need to only look at pharmaceutical companies or medical research firms for examples. Real failure is not having in place strategies for learning from failure.
Leadership really matters!
When it comes to failure, risk, and ultimately innovation itself, the key is what leaders say and do. Most employees can tell if their leader is likely to “shoot the messenger,” advertently or inadvertently punish mistakes, close their doors to the renegades, shut out what’s unfamiliar, or kill disruptive ideas dead in their tracks.
Being a leader who is okay with failure, who is willing to take risks, and who is a true champion of innovation isn’t easy, especially if it runs counter to your accustomed leadership style. But, if you really want to drive innovation in your organisation, you have to start somewhere, perhaps by being willing to swing and miss sometimes and to let your people know it’s okay for them to do the same.