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.