Magazine article Ivey Business Journal Online

Failing to Innovate

Magazine article Ivey Business Journal Online

Failing to Innovate

Article excerpt

Plenty has been written about how to achieve success. According to numerous articles on the topic, Sir Winston Churchill famously said: "Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts." But there are a couple of issues with this statement. The first problem is that Churchill scholars insist the eminently quotable former British prime minister never uttered these words. The second problem is that whoever did make this statement was speaking the truth.

Whether Churchill realized it or not, failure is an excellent teacher. The idea that success often happens quickly without setbacks is a fallacy. More often than not, success actually stems from failure. Indeed, as IBM visionary Thomas J. Watson put it, "the way to succeed is to double your error rate." Simply put, personal or business success is typically a long and bumpy path, which is why the perceived "overnight success" of many success stories was actually a long journey littered with false starts and mistakes. As basketball icon Michael Jordan freely admitted, "I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed." This sentiment is echoed across industries and professions.

Clearly, there is a strong link between failure and success, which has been proven over time across all areas of society, including in organizational innovation. As a result, some organizations readily recognize that learning from failure often leads directly to innovative products, processes, and services. Unfortunately, despite failure's value as a teacher, discussing it is often avoided in today's business world. In fact, failure is not just frequently overlooked. It is routinely covered up.

As noted by Frese and Keith (2015), many organizational cultures see failure as an indicator of "poor performance, negligence, and even lack of intelligence." This misguided workplace thinking about failure is a byproduct of our modern society, supported by newspapers and television reports that emphasize perfection and overnight success stories. And when organizations are preoccupied with error avoidance, instead of error acceptance, innovation suffers because creative processes are inherently error-prone. When failing is deemed unacceptable, experimentation is discouraged. Employees become frustrated and disengaged. Loyalty is lost. Witch hunts occur. In some cases, scapegoats are sacrificed. In other cases, employees holding the key to future organizational success are actually jettisoned for failing and learning a valuable lesson-knowledge that follows them out the door.

When this happens, of course, errors are often repeated over and over again, posing an ongoing and often increasing threat to revenue growth and profitability. The good news is that organizations have a choice. Instead of fearing failure, they can embrace it and "fail smart" to encourage innovation through prudent risk-taking and exploration.

So, how do you fail smart? The following five recommendations are based on extensive academic research on error and failure management, as well as years of experience helping companies improve their performance.

Create a culture of experimentation and creativity. This is the foundation for taking prudent risks in today's business world. Trial and error is the new business model, and "failing smart" and "failing forward" is the mantra. Failing smart means to take risks and learn everything you can from a setback or failure. Failing forward means to apply what you learned from failure to the execution of the next move: put together a new game plan or strategy and apply the lessons learned from the failure to move forward from setbacks. While failing smart is about maximized learning with the expectation that failure will occur, failing forward is about taking the next step forward in the most efficient manner possible. This process will lead the organization toward a more rewarding and productive way of doing business. …

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