To increase innovation, take the sting out of failure

by | August 12, 2013 12:09 am



Organizations have a strong logical need for more innovation efforts, yet often weeks, months and years will go by without anything happening. The reason for this is simple: It’s an emotional problem, not a logical one. Innovation efforts are risky and can fail. And failure can sting. So if you haven’t figured out how to take some of the sting out of failure, you won’t innovate.

Start by defining a smart failure. Everyone in your organization knows what success is. It’s the things you put on a resume: increasing revenue, delivering a product, etc. Far fewer know what smart failures are. These are the thoughtful, well-planned projects that for some reason don’t work.

Define them so people know the acceptable boundaries within which they can fail. If you don’t, all failures will look risky, thereby killing creativity. Consider the following questions when defining smart failures:

What makes a failure smart in our organization? What makes a failure dumb? What guidelines, approaches or processes characterize smart risk-taking? What clear examples can we point to? Next, reward smart failures in addition to successes. Once you’ve defined smart failures, you want to reward them just as you would smart successes.

Doing so sends a powerful message about what sort of behavior is encouraged at your organization. Look, for example, at Tata, the Indian conglomerate whose Innovista program awards the best innovations of the year, as well as the best attempts. The program’s ‘’Dare to Try’’ award goes to the year’s most thoughtful, well-executed failures.

Finally, make your approach to risk-taking transparent. As a leader, you’ve taken risks to get where you are. You’ve had your fair share of successes and a few memorable flops. Share with your team how you engaged with both – how you made mistakes, learned to mitigate risks, dealt with uncertainty and sometimes succeeded.

Let employees see your decision-making process and how you weighed the pros and cons. Let them know you’ll support them as they experiment and learn to take smart risks.

(Doug Sundheim is a leadership and strategy consultant with more than 20 years of experience in helping leaders drive personal and organizational growth. His latest book is “Taking Smart Risks: How Sharp Leaders Win When Stakes Are High.’’)