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"Learn" to Innovate: Why Companies that Celebrate Failure Are Only Half-Right

Posted by Andy Cole on Mon, Feb 23, 2015

Scientist Looking at VialIn an effort to counter the fear-based culture that inhibits innovation at many companies, some leaders (GoogleAmazonRoche) have advocated actually celebrating failure. Interesting! Could this new mindset really be the key to building an internal culture of fearless innovators?Clearly, we want to create a safe environment for employees to admit faults, share lessons learned, and have the courage to attempt things that have never been done, all without the fear of reputational – or even career – consequences. But do we really want employees to idolize those who don’t accomplish what they set out to do? Although provocative, a broad policy like “celebrate failure” can be misleading and create unintended problems.

What companies should be celebrating is the learning derived from failure, not failure itself. To illustrate the difference, putting the focus on failure raises post-mortem questions like “Now that we’ve failed, what worked well?”, “what did we learn from this?”, “how might we do better?” This retroactive approach is better than nothing, but it’s in no way sufficient.

When the goal shifts to maximize learning, it invites key questions at the beginning of the process, like “what might we learn from this activity?”, “what key assumptions could we test?”, and “how might we modify the idea so that we learn even more?” As you can see, this proactive approach can guide and influence activities from early stages in a direction that prevents future failure (or at least the sheer quantity and size of failures before realizing success).

Used in combination with a project debrief, this tactic can be used as part of a powerful learning strategy, ensuring that you get the very most of your innovation activities, independent of failure or success. And that’s certainly worth celebrating.

How do these issues show up in your organization? Does your company embrace failure or learning? Do you conduct structured “after action” analyses of major initiatives to facilitate learning?  We’d be pleased if you would share your ideas, stories, rants, insights, and responses in the comments below.

south street transpAndy Cole is a consultant for South Street Strategy Group where we use a multi-method approach to identify and test growth and innovation strategies for increased commercialization success. 

Topics: South Street Strategy Group, strategy consulting, growth and innovation