How does Failure fit into your innovation strategy?

From a very young age I was taught what I shouldn’t do and that I must deal with the consequences of making mistakes. Growing up in a single parent home, my Mom did her best to protect my brother and I from mistakes by helping us understand the importance of our decisions and the practice of making good decisions. As a young adult, early in my business career I had bosses that didn’t tolerate mistakes even if the mistake was in their delivery of the assignment. I found myself trying to avoid mistakes and protecting my teams from any type of failure which I equated to a hit to my reputation. Despite my attempts, I still ran into failure, and now as a seasoned business leader, I understand the value of mistakes and how awesome a teacher failure can be.

Business is so competitive and fast paced that a mistake could cost the business and its owners their livelihood (especially in small businesses). Likewise, failure is looked at as inconceivable and an outcome that is literally the opposite of why organizations are in business. Given this mentality, I can see why businesses get into a mode of operations that avoids risk and settles into competing on its core competencies... or in other words its comfort zone. Ultimately avoiding all forms of risk and sadly, innovation. Yes, innovation is risky because on the surface it involves uncertainty and ambiguity.

So why do we avoid mistakes and failure? Why don’t we pursue failure in business with rigor and persistence? We’ll the short answer is that it doesn’t feel or look good. Its embarrassing and awkward... with the recovery, regardless of the magnitude of the mistake is difficult and admitting to a mistake places the competency and capacity to manage the business in question. However, the long answer is that we shouldn’t be avoiding mistakes and pursue failure in business. Yes, in our businesses we should chase mistakes and hunt failure.

But where does failure fit into our business models where profits and shareholder value are at the top of the food chain? The answer lies in the building blocks of your organization. How profits will be pursued and captured, how value will be created for clients and how failure is viewed and used to the advantage of the organization should reside within the organization’s strategy. The strategy outlines how things get done in the organization and represents its DNA, the elements of its identity. {If you don’t know what an innovation strategy is or how it works here’s a past blog post that explains it all.}

Failure in business is not an isolated approach but more of a shift in the culture of an organization. Buy-in at the employee level is critical to combat years of social programming that avoids mistakes and builds the resiliency of the collective organization. Ultimately, as business leaders, we pursue failure to gain an edge over our competition and differentiate ourselves in fast moving markets. As the saying goes, “you have to be stretched to be useful”, purposeful, customer-centric businesses stretch into their failures to find value for their customers in a unique and useful way.

Here are 4 ways to add failure to your innovation strategy

  • Become comfortable with being uncomfortable through predetermined collapses (McGrath, 2011)

  • Operate on the edge of the entrepreneurial and administrative boundaries

  • Indulge your entrepreneurial spirit with the understanding that if you don’t innovate you die

  • Create an environment that learns from mistakes and not condemn them or the people that commit them

  • Fail fast and fail often to extract pertinent information from innovative initiatives

  • Failure is inevitable, thus prepare to work with it not against it

  • Embrace the experimentation mentality

  • Acknowledge but limit downstream risks

  • Understand that there are lessons in failure that cannot be learned in success

  • Change the narrative on mistakes

  • Distinguish between errors of omission versus commission

  • Control the environment by not abandoning business principles and your intuition

Why add failure to your innovation strategy? Well at a fundamental level, innovation is risky and can be costly if not approached strategically. Logically, how an organization executes its innovative intent should include how to handle bumps along the way. That includes changing how people feel about failure and mistakes as well as shifting to a growth culture. To have an innovation strategy that omits the value of failure is effectively negligent