We Need To Think About Failure Differently To Drive Innovation

Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new

Yesterday I gave a talk to Foxconn employees and Directors about culture and how it drives innovation. A good way to frame culture is like this: what you reward and what you punish.

With that said, turn your attention to the following tweet:

Failure As A Growth Engine

Nowadays most established companies on the planet toot the horn of innovation, they all say they’re developing innovators and doing great things; but mostly they don’t know what they’re talking about and are just paying lip service to it.

What exactly don’t they understand?

That they’re their own enemy. It’s very simple, an established organization maintains stability because they’re specialized on optimizing their existing business model to deliver more of what already works. While this is great and keeps the wheels turning it’s also why they’re set up to fail because their experience and success is a straight jacket that’s hard to shake out off; put simply: Your internal culture is the biggest enemy to innovation.

Now let’s go back to the beginning of this post and repeat what culture is: what you reward and what you punish.

Most established organizations reward compliance and punish failure to comply; both enemies of innovation. As a leader of your organization you should heed Jeff Bezos’ advice on how think and do innovationfailure and invention are inseparable twins. He’s honestly one of my favorite leaders of today, and the reason that I buy Amazon shares UK whenever I have any spare cash, for long holding. Amazon will definitely rule the world one day soon.

But, you will fail. That’s a fact. They key is to fail fast, learn from those mistakes and recover from them just as fast; that’s how innovative companies operate. Across the board innovative companies have many things in common, but the most important one is they let employees play with ideas that could improve the business both in the present and in the future. They reward daring and punish not trying; understanding that if they aren’t experiencing failure, then they are making a far worse mistake: They are being driven by the desire to avoid it.

A culture of innovation is a culture of constant experimentation and learning. Amazon does this very well and have what a great culture of innovation looks like.

So, here’s a quick test for you to know if you have what it takes to create and drive a culture of innovation: do employees in your organization need to ask for permission to make improvements?

You’re in a good place if they don’t. But if they do, I’ll be blunt with you: You don’t have innovation if employees need to ask for permission to make things better.

As a business leader, you get what you reward and punish. So reward trying and learning, and punish not trying and learning if you want innovation. I’ll leave you with the following quote from Ed Catmull’s brilliant book Creativity Inc. to conclude and drive the point more:

We need to think about failure differently. I’m not the first to say that failure, when approached properly, can be an opportunity for growth. But the way most people interpret this assertion is that mistakes are a necessary evil. Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new (and, as such, should be seen as valuable; without them, we’d have no originality). And yet, even as I say that embracing failure is an important part of learning, I also acknowledge that acknowledging this truth is not enough. That’s because failure is painful, and our feelings about this pain tend to screw up our understanding of its worth. To disentangle the good and the bad parts of failure, we have to recognize both the reality of the pain and the benefit of the resulting growth.

Bottom line: Companies that want innovation have see and accept failure as an inevitable consequence of doing something new.

Also published on Medium.