5 Keys to Failing the Right Way

Date: May 30, 2013

"Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm." This is as true for business owners today as it was when Winston Churchill first said it. This is especially important for business owners to bear in mind. If you don’t accept failure, then the primary source of your organization’s success — innovative ideas — becomes the victim because employees aren’t willing to speak up. An organization without innovation is on a path to long-term failure.

Post-it® Problems 

For those of us who practice applied creativity for a living, it would be difficult to find a more useful tool than the Post-it® note for capturing ideas and information. 

But most people aren’t aware of what a complete failure the invention initially was. It began as a solution without a problem: Dr. Spencer Silver, a senior chemist at 3M, had invented a low-tack glue that could be applied to surfaces and removed, leaving little residue behind. No one saw a good use for such weak glue, and Silver promoted his product unsuccessfully for more than five years.   

Silver’s glue was introduced to Dr. Art Fry, another employee at 3M, who created the little pervasive peel-and-press notes we now know as Post-its®. Still, Fry spent another five years trying to bring his product to market. In total, getting the Post-it® off the ground took 13 years.   

The saga of the Post-it® just goes to show that innovation — especially breakthrough innovation — is the direct outcome of a person’s willingness to risk time, energy, and resources.

When one attempt at innovation (like Silver’s cart-before-the-horse glue) might not succeed, a successful business knows to use each failure as an opportunity to learn and grow its original idea, giving it a chance for success in the long run. 

Don’t Take It Personally

Failure is the hallmark of a business that is willing to grow. Rather than take each failure personally, you and your employees should know you’re doing it wrong if you don’t fail from time to time. You are simply not risking enough for your future success.

Companies that choose to play it safe by not innovating will eventually find that their market has eroded and that they’ve been superseded by more innovative companies. Therefore, the price for not embracing small failures in the pursuit of innovation is total failure.

Failure’s Big Benefit: Learning through Experimentation

The most useful side effect of failure is the data that comes from mistakes. Data gained from failure gives you a great chance to learn via small-scale experimentation. Experimentation means you can change your idea to scale faster, increase user acceptance, or deliver to a more targeted market segment.   

You might even consider setting up a “fail-in-front-of-friends” model. This means choosing subsets of the intended customer group that are likely to be more forgiving of unfinished or tentative products. This way, the cost of failure won’t generate customer dissatisfaction before your idea is even brought to market. 

By letting these chosen customers see the man behind the curtain, the process of controlled failure can foster a level of customer trust that previously did not exist. 

The Five Keys to Embracing Failure

Creating an innovative environment without fear of failure takes a few shifts in attitude and committed leadership. Here are the five keys to embracing failure:

  1. Make it okay to fail. Change your performance management model from one that punishes failure to one that rewards it. For example, ask, “Which person’s failure helped us learn the most?”
  2. Protect those who fail. Make sure risk takers aren’t hit with harsh repercussions. Set reasonable limits; communicate just how much can be risked in any innovation experiment. 
  3. Promote learning. Make the data acquired from failures visible across the organization by documenting and reporting failures.  
  4. Learn how to let go. What’s done is done. Failures should never become ammunition for a future point of contention. 
  5. Keep a positive attitude. A belief that the next outcome will be better can serve as a catalyst to positive change and innovation. 

Failures are an ongoing part of business, so it’s futile to hide from them. If you make a point of discussing them in employee gatherings, celebrating them in project reviews, and creating a peer-reviewed award for the greatest learning that came from a failure, you can make failures commonplace and accepted, rather than something to be feared.  

Failure and the Small Business

Creating an environment that welcomes failure is especially important for the growth of a small business because you can’t have growth without innovation, and there’s no innovation without failure. 

At the same time, entertaining the mere notion of failure is terrifying for small businesses. Because you are often riding a very thin edge of success, your resources are so limited that the price of any failure seems too great to endure. 

Still, there is a great cost associated with doing nothing, so it’s important for small businesses to create an environment that welcomes controlled experiments designed to provide learning opportunities. This way, any failures that occur will be manageable and won’t wipe out the entire business. If you’re clear about the stakes of not innovating, your employees’ motivation to succeed will be much greater.

You have a choice: You can create your own future by growing from the failure that comes along with innovation, or you can sit by and do nothing while your competitors create it for you. At the end of the day, it comes down to the fact that nothing ventured means nothing is gained. Do you have the courage to fail well?

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About the Author

Andrew (Drew) C. Marshall is the Principal of Primed Associates, an innovation consultancy. He lives in central New Jersey and works with clients across the U.S. and around the world. He is a co-host of weekly innovation-focused Twitter chat, #innochat; founder, host, and producer of Ignite Princeton; and a contributor to the Innovation Excellence blog. He is also providing support for the implementation of the Design Thinking for Scholars model with the Network of Leadership Scholars (a network within the Academy of Management).

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