Welcome Failure

Very often the best way to test an idea is not to analyze it but to try it. The organization that implements lots of ideas will most likely have many failures but the chances are, it will reap some mighty successes too. By trying numerous initiatives we improve our chances that one of them will be a star. As Tom Kelley of IDEO puts it, ‘Fail often to succeed sooner.’

Deborah Bull is the artistic Director at the Royal Opera House in London. She is keen to encourage small companies of artists to come out with mad ideas and to try them. She says, ‘We need to get away from the idea that everything has to be a hit at the box office and a hit with the critics. If everything we do succeeds, then we are failing, because it means we are not taking enough risks.’

Honda Motor Company entered the US market in 1959 with its range of low-powered motorcycles. It endured failure after failure as it learned the hard way that little motorcycles popular in the Tokyo suburbs were not well received on the wide open roads of the USA. They eventually brought out a range of high powered bikes that became very popular. Soichiro Honda, the founder of Honda said, ‘Many people dream of success. Success can only be achieved through repeated failure and introspection. Success represents the 1 per cent of your work that results from the 99 per cent that is called failure.’

What makes Silicon Valley so successful as the engine of high-tech growth? It is the Darwinian process of failure. Author Mike Malone puts it like this, ‘Outsiders think of Silicon Valley as a success, but it is, in truth, a graveyard. Failure is Silicon Valley’s greatest strength. Every failed product or enterprise is a lesson stored in the collective memory. We don’t stigmatize failure; we admire it. Venture Capitalists like to see a little failure in the résumés of entrepreneurs.’

In order to develop the concept of the benefits of failure, Penn State University has a course for engineering students called Failure 101. The students have to take risks and do experiments. The more failures they have, the sooner they can get an A grade!

Many great successes started out as failures. Columbus failed when he set out to find a new route to India. He found America instead (and because he thought it was India he called the natives “Indians”). Champagne was invented by a monk called Dom Perignon when a bottle of wine accidentally had a secondary fermentation. 3M invented glue that was a failure – it did not stick. But it became the basis for the Post-it note, which was a huge success.

Tips for succeeding through failure:

  • Recognise and communicate that when you give people freedom to succeed, you give them freedom to fail too.
  • Distinguish between two kinds of failure – honourable failure where an honest attempt at something new or different has been tried unsuccessfully and incompetent failure where people fail for lack of effort or competence in standard operations.
  • Make sure people know that honourable failures will not be criticized.
  • Get people to admit to or even boast about failures they have had where they tried something innovative that did not succeed. Make these into learning experiences.
  • In a culture that is very risk averse and keen to apportion blame take the issue head on by rewarding honourable failures. Publicly praise and reward those who have had them.

Even if the failure does not lead directly to a success it can be seen as a step along the way. Edison’s attitude to ‘failure’ is salutary. When asked why so many of his experiments failed he explained that they were not failures. Each time he had discovered a method that did not work.

The innovative leader encourages a culture of experimentation. You must teach people that each failure is a step along the road to success. To be truly agile, you must give people the freedom to innovate, the freedom to experiment, the freedom to succeed. That means you must give them the freedom to fail too.

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