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Failure: The Foundation of Innovation and Success

Does our strong aversion to failure lead to higher business risk, and a greater probability a project or venture will fail? Eliminating failure and all risk is impossible. While risk mitigation and eliminating failure are certainly reasonable and necessary aspirations, how do you balance the need to grow and innovate with the inevitability that failure will occur along the way? How can we better use failure to innovate like, Edison, Disney and Jobs did? What systems and processes do you have in place to identify, understand and address failure in your organization? The real question is not how to eliminate failure, rather how do you use failure to spark innovation and minimize risk in your business? In most cases, it is not the failure that stymies the project, instead it’s the manner in which we deal with failure. We know that through failure we learn and innovate, yet we treat failure as if it were an incurable disease, something to be avoided at all costs. However, there are three steps you can take that will keep you on track as you attempt dissect and eliminate the root cause of failure.

Fear of failure is ingrained in us at an early age. In school, we are taught to compete for grades, athletic accomplishments, even popularity. Anything less than “winning” is considered failure and is not acceptable.  Perhaps, someone used failure as a teachable moment, but more likely the main lesson was the outcome was all that mattered.  This lesson is reinforced in business. If goals were not met there is often swift chastisement, instead of a thorough assessment of what went wrong, why there was a shortfall and what can be done about. Intrinsically we know that failing on a result is going to happen to everyone and every business.  In fact, methodologies and practices like Kaizen, Six Sigma, and lean manufacturing are rooted in systematically finding fail points, and eliminating them.  These practices embrace the detailed analysis of failure—recognition is the first step toward improvement—but our application of these processes tends to focus on punishing the “bad” instead of exploring the potential root causes and figuring out how best to adapt.

We all fail at some point in our lives (probably many times). In order to keep moving forward, failure should be viewed as the fuel that drives change, innovation, and success.  The person who has never failed is either extremely fortunate, or more likely, operating so low on the risk curve that his ability to innovate and achieve any type of real success is severely limited.  We must embrace failure for the tool it is—a springboard for positive change and innovation.  The process of identifying and correcting the cause(s) of a failure must go beyond the analytical, you must also create an environment where issues are safely examined and resolutions are explored without negative consequences to the individuals involved..

Dealing with failure is a complex. The“failure is not an option” approach will certainly lead to more failure. But here are three key ideas toward creating a workplace platform that will enable you to use failure to drive your company toward greater success:

Open Environment

Don’t shoot the messenger and don’t punish the failure. Instead, reward identification of the issue.  As a leader, focus on what to do about the problem versus focusing on the actual occurrence.  A failure has taken place and there is nothing you can do to change it.  However, you can change how you move forward from this event.  Your team needs to know all the facts and circumstances that resulted in the failure.  If your team, at any level, is afraid to discuss the issues you will continue to be surprised (negatively) in the future.  Embrace the experience as a learning opportunity that will help your staff grow and ultimately make your company more profitable.

360 Degree Evaluation

Gain a full understanding of the failed initiative or process. The review needs to encompass not only your internal operations/structure, but the external environment as well.  It should incorporate input from all levels of your organization to fully understand all of the issues involved.  This includes customer perceptions/experience, vendors, market conditions and competition.  The review should include the cost of the failure, but more importantly, you must be able to articulate the opportunity/future return that will be generated by the changes being made as a result of the failure.

Share the Experience

Communicate the lessons learned from failure throughout the entire company. Learning from mistakes is valuable.  Create a platform highlighting the issues, explain how they were overcome, and what you expect in terms of value add going forward.  Create a timeline of “failures” over the years.  This will help to make your team feel comfortable in raising problems as they occur (early identification), and it also creates a “portfolio of growth” that will enable you to better identify patterns of failure that may arise in the future.

We are hard-wired to react negatively to failure. And it is  easy for us to pass blame.  But deciding to go against the grain and embrace failure may be one of the greatest things that you will ever do for your employees and the value of your organization.  Always, determine which analytical methods to employ to help you view issues from 360 degree perspective to better discover failures.  But then, commit to creating and nurturing an open environment that rewards both failure identification and innovative problem-solving, and one that communicates openly and often.  In so doing, you will be well on your way to reducing business risk while at the same time increasing your company’s potential for growth.

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