Today, technology evolves at lightning speed. Computers, phones, apps, and software programs, just to name a few are improving constantly. New innovations are introduced almost daily; the grunt work behind the innovation process is rarely seen. While success is ingenuity that is quickly rewarded, the role of failure is often overlooked. In reality though, failure plays a vital and irreplaceable role in rapid innovation.
The Role of Failure
It may seem counterintuitive, but repeated failures often lead to success. Baba Shiv, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business whose research focuses on innovation in the workplace, states “If you’re trying to solve a problem there are potentially hundreds of possible pathways to take, but only a few are going to lead to the appropriate solution. And the only way to discover that is to try and fail and try again.” Innovation occurs when one learns what works from learning what does not work. Unfortunately, many entrepreneurs fear failure. In turn, they are averse to taking risks, shying away from what could be potential innovation. Even though the concept of learning from one’s mistakes is an old and known one, accepting failure within the workplace is something management constantly struggles with. Probably because the money and time – on part of the employee as well as the employer – cannot be easily quantified in terms of returns from failed attempts. However, according to Patrick Gray, author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology, “For innovation to become embedded in your organizational culture, not only must you learn to fail, but learn to do so early and often.”
One way to inculcate a culture of accepting failure, and thereby promoting innovation is celebrating failure – much like success is celebrated. In an article by Victor Assad, Managing Partner at InnovationOne, Assad writes that certain organization are moving away from ratings, “rack and stack,” (forced ranking of employees) and the once-a-year-performance-review-here-is your-rating-and-pay-raise discussion—and all the destructive competition and hallway grumbling these practices engender. Instead, they are moving towards a continued performance feedback and subsequent recognition system, that doesn’t depend on ratings. If your innovation team is rapidly prototyping and failing, and if their failures are generating a trail of learning for the next innovation, then yes, reward them,” states Assad. It is this failure that leads to an understanding of what works and what doesn’t, ultimately turning what works into the next product or service model. Shiv corroborates this thought, stating that not only should significant successes be celebrated, but smaller ones alongside their failures should be rewarded. After all, breakthrough successes generally happen “after, or in tandem with, incremental ones.” Unfortunately, many leaders today still fear failure. A focus on exploration is hard to justify when companies need to keep their stocks up and pay their dividends. Yet, it is important to keep in mind that without embracing rapid failure and investing efforts into innovation, a competing company is bound to innovate first. As Shiv states, “If you don’t invest in exploration, someone else will, and then you’ll just be licensing or acquiring their know-how.”
Thriving in this sort of environment of rapid failure requires a different skillset from that of the traditional “rack and track” workplace. Thus, management should consider if team members are in the right roles during their failure analysis. Often, they will find that come employees are simply not cut out for innovation-oriented projects, contrary to the goals of a company that is being pushed forward by innovation itself. It is then integral to look for employees who not only survive, but also thrive in an environment of uncertainty; who see failure as an enabler to push technological and innovative borders.
Management needs to encourage fast failure, while simultaneously making sure that it doesn’t incur organizational retribution. Trusting a team’s judgement is integral to this, alongside the acceptance that they may sometimes make the wrong choice. Gray lays out a basic analysis process that allows employees to review what worked and what didn’t. As soon as an effort has failed, an objective investigation must take place. This investigation should consider which factors were misjudged, if incorrect resources were assigned, or technologies used that did not fulfill the task. All team members including junior staff that have insight to everyday activities that contributed to the failed effort should be included in this analysis. At all times is key to “regard the failure and its analysis as efforts to move forward, rather than efforts to assign blame or fight old battles.” For example, if an employee was unable to perform a certain task, a new role could be given to that employee, or a structure could be changed to ensure his future success. Ultimately, the failure should be used to learn how to improve and move forward, rather than assign unwarranted blame.
While it can sometimes be a scary thought, failure is what pushes innovation. Humans are naturally predisposed to learn from failure, and it is this learning that encourages the creation of new developments. Companies that don’t allow for failure will never keep up with those that are constantly innovating and exploring. Surely management will hit more dead ends than breakthrough innovations, but quickly assessing and reviewing failed efforts will lead to a cycle of innovation, which will push a company forward in today’s world of technological dynamism.