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Published on Jun 12
Failure has always played a vital role in innovation and invention. Without risk takers who are willing to try and fail time and again, many Fortune 500 companies wouldn’t be where they are today. Yet in today’s business world, employees who make mistakes and whose projects fail are often met with criticism, career setbacks, or termination, creating a risk-averse culture that is afraid to innovate or come up with new ideas. By encouraging employees to take on new initiatives that might fail (and being accepting of that failure), you help your employees become more accepting of risk and willing to take creative approaches to problem solving. Let’s explore how a failure-tolerant culture can help your employees become risk takers and make your company more innovative.
When we talk about failure, we mean those projects – a new marketing idea or product demo – that just didn’t pan out the way you and your team thought it would. Allowing your employees to grow and learn from their mistakes in business helps them understand what won’t work and how they can better design a project or product in the future.
We’re not talking about letting your team members make sloppy mistakes like sending out the wrong items, missing critical deadlines, or failing to do their jobs. These kinds of mistakes do not contribute to risk or learning and should be dealt with through traditional HR avenues.
When asked about the many times he failed before succeeding to build a working light bulb, popular history tells us that Thomas Edison responded that he hadn’t failed 10,000 times, but succeeded in finding 10,000 methods that wouldn’t work. In fact, as an innovator, Edison understood that “we sometimes learn a lot from our failures if we have put into the effort the best thought and work we are capable of.”
Failure tolerant leaders encourage their employees to try new ideas and use cutting-edge techniques without fear. Without this ability to try and fail, we wouldn’t have many of our favorite products today, including the potato chip, Post-It Notes, or penicillin. Fear of failure can lead to stagnation and prevent employees from trying or proposing new ideas, thus creating stagnation and lack of innovation in your company.
Learn from failure
Our brains are physically changed through trial and error, creating new neural pathways based on new information gained through the experience of failure. When your employees attempt a new idea or propose a product that fails to capture the market, they are able to use the information attained through that failure in their next endeavors.
Encourage employees to perform a post-mortem on failed projects to make sure that everyone understands why it didn’t succeed. These events aren’t opportunities for blame or finger-pointing. The insights gained through failure allow your employees to understand what didn’t work and why, and provide a basis for future innovation.
Know when enough is enough
Creating a failure-tolerant culture encourages your employees to save your company time and money by empowering them to hit the kill switch on projects when fatal flaws are uncovered. By allowing employees to own their failures without fear of reprisal, you remove the instinct to carry on for the sake of avoiding consequence.
Help your employees turn a constructively critical eye on projects they’re working on by hosting monthly priority and kill meetings. By using knowledge gained through previous failures, employees can identify projects that should be killed because the ideas or outcomes are not delivering as expected.
Let failure guide you to success
Failure is part of growing and building your business. If you or your employees haven’t made any mistakes in the last year, it’s a sure sign that you aren’t trying enough new things or taking the kinds of risks that could have huge rewards for your company.
With corporate CEOs like Coca-Cola’s James Quincy insisting that “if we’re not making mistakes, we’re not trying hard enough” and Netflix’s Reed Hastings stating that “our hit ratio is too high right now, We have to take more risk…to try more crazy things…we should have a higher cancel rate overall,” it’s not hard to see the writing on the wall. The most creative, innovative, and successful companies got to where they are, in part, because they weren’t afraid to take risks and fail in the process. Learning from these failures and building on the knowledge these experiences offered are what provides the framework for future success.
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