Not all failure created equal

Not all failure created equal Many managers don’t distinguish between when failure can be a valuable catalyst for learning and when it can be truly harmful

Ron Ashkenas


Most of us would accept that failure is just an inevitable part of success. For instance, when you learn how to ski, you have to fall a number of times before you’re able to make it down the mountain skilfully. There are times, however, when failure is not a good thing, such as when you need to meet a customer deadline or achieve a competitive level of quality.

Unfortunately, many managers don’t distinguish between when failure can be a valuable catalyst for learning and when it can be truly harmful, leaving employees unsure about when to take risks and experiment, and when to play it safe. For managers and employees, the key to getting this right is understanding whether the organisation is in execution mode or innovation mode.

I was reminded of this difference while teaching in Silicon Valley last year. As everyone knows, the area between San Francisco and San Jose has thousands of start-up companies, as well as dozens of innovation “outposts” set up by established companies from around the world.

In talking with the people who are involved with these innovation efforts, the striking thing is not their descriptions of success, but of the failures that helped them along the way. In Silicon Valley (and other hotbeds of innovation), failure is badge of honour and a prerequisite for success – not something to be ashamed of.

For these innovators, a successful company, and a successful career, requires a continuing series of rapid experiments, tests, hypotheses and pivots, which means that nobody gets it right the first time (or the second or third). As a result, failure is highly valued.

In contrast, the established companies that I’ve spent most of my career working with are focused on executing what they already know how to do instead of innovating something new. And when failure occurs in the context of execution, it can harm results or reputation or create undue risk. So even when execution-focused executives say that it’s all right to fail, they usually don’t really mean it.

The real challenge for leaders is not to either accept or reject failure, but rather to differentiate between whether they are in execution or innovation mode. Being in execution mode means that standard operating practices have been developed and need to be implemented with as little deviation as possible.

Sure there can be improvements made, but these have to be done carefully and explicitly, under controlled conditions, so that the basic operations are not disrupted. As such, failure needs to be minimised or eliminated. Innovation mode, on the other hand, is when standards still don’t exist and best practices are still being discovered and tested.

In this kind of situation, it’s important to try out new ideas, formats and processes – and allow room for plenty of failure – in order to learn what works and what does not. Once the focus becomes clear, managers can more easily communicate what the appropriate attitude toward failure should be. The reason why many established firms struggle with innovation is that they bring the execution mentality with them, and then don’t encourage the failure necessary to develop new products, services or processes.

So yes, failure is a key to learning, growing and figuring out what works. But before you either celebrate or punish failure, make sure you know what you are trying to achieve by doing so. – Copyright Harvard Business Review 2014

Previously published in The Irish Times.


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