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Changing How We View Failure — Failure as an Essential Part of Growth

Innovation requires a free flow of ideas. Risk aversion and fear of failure block this flow and stall innovation.

Many employees report that their companies only celebrate innovation when it succeeds (Accenture, 2013). If Jill in Sales has a great idea for marketing a new product line but has some doubts about whether it will work, why would she want to take the risk?

The notion of “failure” as an absoulte end poisons the soil that innovation seeds need to grow. A safe, encouraging culture will give your innovators and their ideas the chance to grow and blossom. Here are some tips for changing the view on temporary setbacks and promoting a culture that nurtures innovation instead.

Tips to Changing the View on Failure

Tip #1: Reconfigure “failure” as an essential learning. Failure — it is just a word, but it is a heavy word and it scares people.

Let’s face it — no one wants to hear their work or ideas called a failure in an absolute way. A mistake, let down, total loss, deficient… leave these words out if you want to encourage innovation. Words like this make people defensive, and that makes them less likely to take risks and share ideas. Instead, help them see any failure as a temporary setback, and a necessary part of the learning process leading to success.

Tip #2: Make managers the single point of accountability for taking absolute failure out of the innovation conversation. In a recent study, only one out of eight employees reported that their managers tolerate failure. Managers can make a great impact by encouraging employees to pursue their ideas, to evaluate strategies, and to take action. They can work with employees to align their ideas with business objectives and the resources available.

Reframing a new venture as “experimental” or “groundbreaking,” rather than a chance to succeed or fail, goes a long way. Employees should be prepared for things not to go as planned. They should also know that their managers will be there to help overcome obstacles and to learn from the outcomes.

Tip #3: Reward failed ideas. When ideas do not work as planned, what can you take away from the situation to turn it into a victory? Try using a method to extract lessons and learning points. When a failure leads to new understanding, reward, praise, and celebrate the success of new directions and new knowledge. Employees who have learned from so-called failures can make an even bigger impact by sharing their new knowledge with others. Give them a platform to do so, and you will encourage innovation.

Failure, commonly avoided and feared, can be the very way to succeed in innovation. Innovators are not working within the confines of protocols and prescribed tasks. They are stepping outside of the box, and that is risky. By changing the way “failure” is viewed in the ocmpany, ensuring managers encourage the pursuit of ideas, and rewarding failed ideas that lead to lessons learned, you can overcome this common obstacle to innovation success.

In fact, this is so important to us that we will be a key sponsor in the 2014 Fail Forward Conferencein Toronto, Canada. We hope to see you there.

Harness the power of employee ideas.