It is now conventional wisdom that we learn as much – if not more – from failure as from success. Even Prince Andrew said in a newspaper interview published yesterday that failure was good for you. Yet organizations – while espousing the theory – are often reluctant to embrace the concept in practice. The reasons are not too hard to find. Even in the most progressive and understanding of workplaces admitting to failure brings forth feelings of embarrassment, shame and inadequacy. In more extreme organizations it can lead to understandable concerns about loss of status and even salary.
So how does the enlightened manager overcome such negativity? Theodore Forbath, in an article in the Winter 2014 issue of Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto’s business school, says that there is a new breed of organization emerging that actually regards failure as a goal. As an example, he cites a venture between the University of Pennsylvania and the US Food and Drug Administration that designed a drug delivery system by initially looking at as many ways of failing as possible before moving on to designing ways of avoiding them.
Forbath, global vice president of innovation strategy at frog, a consultancy based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, takes as his starting point the notion of “intelligent failure” that is increasingly being regarded as an essential component in the innovation process. Indeed, he says that in most organizations “various facets of the product development processes manifest the concept of intelligent failure”, but they are often “re-contextualized” as “pilot product launches,” “beta software releases” or “customer feedback sessions.”
Based on his work with a variety of organizations, Forbath has come up with several recommendations for overcoming the psychological barriers that hinder managers and their teams from taking the risks associated with intelligent failure, or a form of experimentation that has been seen as akin to the scientific method.
- Train, coach and model “managed failure.” Organizations are often reluctant to institutionalize acceptance of “failures” out of fear of creating an environment that does not recognize the value of the resources invested or a culture that does not value winning. This mindset can be shifted by making clear the purpose of early experiments and then coaching the team to understand the reasoning behind them before testing the idea.
- Align performance measurements. Leaders must align performance measures with the acceptance of failure. People will be more motivated to experiment if they are supported by their organizations through raises, bonuses, promotions and other opportunities. Evaluation of individuals should be based on such things as effective planning, execution, analysis, communication and application of learning from the experiments, while for entire business units performance goals can be set according to the proportion of revenue stemming from new product launches as well as the broader effect of best practice, intellectual property and learning across the company.
- Emphasize teamwork. This encourages shared credit as well as shared learning opportunities. Team members can also support and encourage each other and so counter feelings of negative self-worth by documenting the insights gained and best practices developed. Project leaders should also remind team members that an innovation initiative can be as much about data gathering and analysis as about achieving success.
- Publicly embrace failure. Company leaders can reinforce acceptance of failure by celebrating projects that did not quite meet expectations but were successful in producing new learning.
- Encourage experimentation with unknown results. One approach, adopted by various technology companies and others, is to set aside time for experimentation within employees’ schedules. Another approach is to encourage employees to look at past failures and re-evaluate them for potential solutions.
- Conduct post-experiment feedback sessions. At frog, for example, Forbath and his colleagues have adopted a similar approach to the military in reviewing projects after they have finished to assess and learn from the experience, whether or not it was a failure or success, or a combination of the two.
- Look for additional applications of findings. By analyzing findings from innovation experiments, companies can obtain an advantage over competitors through gaining insights into new markets. Something that initially looks a failure or does not fit with a company’s existing strategy could contain the seeds of a powerful new opportunity.
- Share results. After analysis, results of experiments should be distributed across the company to inspire others to apply learnings and to carry out further experiments. It is important to state not only what was learned but the recommended actions for change and future tests.
Forbath concludes by asserting that adopting such methods can help recast failure as something much more positive – “progressive experimentation”. The power of this is that progressive experiments allow organizations to move towards producing something marketable in increments that enable adjustments to be made quickly and at low cost. “What leader wouldn’t want to encourage more of that?” Quite.
About the Author: Roger Trapp is a well-known UK-based business journalist and corporate writer, with in-depth knowledge of management issues, enterprise and a variety of related topics. He was on the business staff of the Independent and Independent on Sunday for more than a decade. He has also been a regular writer for a variety of magazines covering a range of subjects, but particularly management, finance and enterprise. His latest book is entitled What You Need To Know About: Business (published by Capstone). Roger also writes for Forbes on management issues.