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Innovation: Enough with the Freedom to Fail

Let’s not go overboard with the freedom to fail. Companies should let employees know they expect success more often than not. Pro or con?

Pro: Excuses, Excuses

I’ve seen it happen all too frequently. A manager opens up a review meeting about a project that is clearly struggling by saying, "Remember, we’re innovating here. We should expect to fail."

Too frequently, that’s code for something far more ominous. Give the manager truth serum, and you would hear, "I screwed up" or "I didn’t do my homework."

There’s no doubt that innovation entails risk and randomness, and that sometimes people are going to do all the right things but get bad results. We should celebrate people who take well-thought-out, calculated risks that don’t pan out. That is not failure but important learning on the road to organizational success, as resources can be redirected to projects with higher potential.

But that doesn’t excuse stupidity and sloppiness.

The best innovators approach uncertain problems thoughtfully. They seek to learn as much as possible from whatever data they can get their hands on. They use that information to design and execute well-constructed experiments around the most critical unknowns in their plans. Learning from those experiments informs their next steps.

Famous football coach Vince Lombardi once said, "If you can accept losing, you can’t win." So, too, with innovation. You need to demand—and expect—success, but understand that success sometimes means deciding not to proceed with a project. If an innovator reaches that end point by smart and careful action, celebrate. If he or she reaches it any other way, well, fire away.

Con: Small Failures Welcome

The point of the headline above is simple: Failure isn’t fatal. In fact, it’s required for innovation success—and indeed for corporate survival. Here’s why.

1. Fear of failure is perhaps the worst affliction a manager can have, as management consultant and author James A. Autry once pointed out, "because it leads to creative paralysis and inhibited growth."

2. Lack of growth equals corporate death. The only way to grow is to try new things.

3. Common sense tells you the odds are ridiculously small that you are going to get your new product or service absolutely right the first time.

That means you are going to fail, maybe a lot, before you get it right.

You need to accept that fact if you are going to do your best work. It is a concept you must get across to your team and entire company in order to free them from the innovation-limiting shackles of perfection.

You need to tell them that the real failure is fear of launching an idea until it is perfect, because by then the need you have identified may have been filled by someone else, or morphed into something new.

Far better is to get the idea out there quickly, listen to what the customer has to say, and modify as necessary.

Yep, you could view all those modifications as evidence of failure. But you would be wrong. They are actually evidence that you are creating a company of "learners," not "knowers." A learning culture is an innovative culture. A knowing culture—one where everyone knows everything—is one in need of a new leader.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg Businessweek,, or Bloomberg LP.

Reader Comments

Jeffrey Phillips

Where are the economists when you need them? This is definitely a "on one hand, on the other hand" question. Both Anthony and the folks from Maddock Douglas are right.

Innovators need more "room," more permission to try new things, and must admit to the possibility of failure when doing their work as opposed to doing traditional projects that the corporation has proven it can do well. Otherwise, they wouldn't be innovating, they'd be repeating a tried and true methodology.

However, innovation must at some point deliver value, hopefully far greater value than could have been accomplished through traditional, perhaps safer means.

It's not the "failure" per se anyway that's at issue. What is at issue is the result. At some point any innovator is going to "fail", and the real question will be how the company reacts to a "failure." That will indicate the culture of the firm and its ability to innovate over the long run.

Mike Maddock

Scott, Vince Lombardi was coaching professionals who had spent the better part of their lives perfecting their skills to play a specific position. If the same players were asked to play soccer, then do gymnastics, then lacrosse, then hockey, then cricket for the first time in one week, your quote would not be appropriate. In other words, your quote is not appropriate.

Innovators must embrace the attitude of failing forward. Yes, they must not be careless, but fear of failure and driving for perfection is why big companies so often lose to small ones. It's why they waste so much money proving ideas aren't good enough. It's why they spend so much time on safe evolutions instead of starting game-changing revolutions.

You want to see something sad? Go visit any number of large organizations that have been working on the same idea for years while their competition is in market with their third version of the very same product. Look into the eyes of the people still working to launch the idea for the first time. Half are afraid, the other half just don't care anymore. The ones that really cared? They left years ago. Now that's sad.

Capt. Peligroso

Fear is the mortal enemy of creativity, innovation, and happiness.--Alex Bogusky

Raphael Louis Viton

Nice comment from Doug Stone, VP of Innovation at MD: "Innovation management relies on recovery from failure--not preventing it." Is your management structure trying to prevent failures by seeking only reliability (incremental improvement)? Innovation survival is fostered by an environment that balances validity with reliability. Take chances on valid concepts; reliably recover from controlled failures.

Tara @ RB

There is an interesting debate on this very subject over on Linked In - with very differing viewpoints!

I think both commentators here are right: We should celebrate people who take well-thought-out, calculated risks that don’t pan out. It's all important learning on the road to success.

And as the 'cons' say: Far better is to get the idea out there quickly, listen to what the customer has to say, and modify as necessary.

If daring ideas are allowed to thrive will that not encourage bold thinking, initiative, and commercial drive from your workforce?

O Marroquin

There are times when there isn't an abundance of time to get all the details perfected prior to rolling out the new and/or improved idea, so you either move or get out of the way. The cost of the mistake may be less than not doing anything at all.

Mandy Vavrinak

These viewpoints aren't all that different, really. Scott says you need to expect success. What's wrong with that? It doesn't mean you can't accept that the outcome may, indeed, be the decision to "fail" a project or idea and move on, having learned from the experience.

Mike says small failures are welcome, and that getting a product out there and then modifying is OK, even preferred. I don't disagree. And, more important, neither did Scott.

Mike didn't say, "put any old crappy thing out there--if it bombs, oh well, you tried and failed and now you can move on." He assumes you (company) are trying to do your best work. And Scott assumes it, too, and further says you (company) should expect good work.

Useless debates over the semantics of innovation leadership paralyze growth more effectively than actual failures do because we are focusing not on what we are doing, but rather how we talk about doing it, someday.

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