If someone is really trying to be innovative, almost by definition that person will fail from time to time. This is because innovations that have never been tried before are often risky undertakings, and failure is far more likely than success. James Dyson went through 5,127 prototypes before he came up with his famous vacuum cleaner. Thomas Edison famously said, "I have not failed, I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." To persevere is certainly a virtue, and many examples show that such persistence can ultimately pay off. But this kind of persistence is a virtue in an individual, not necessarily in an organization or company. A company that constantly follows failing strategies will be out of business rather quickly.
Because of this, businesses are very concerned with failure, and the punishment can often be severe: loss of jobs, financial penalties and so on. Although sometimes it is necessary to take such severe measures, there is a trade-off in terms of loss of communication, and such decisions can also limit the possibility for individual or organizational improvement. There are more constructive ways to respond to failure. Here are seven ways for a company to respond.
- Use mistakes to pinpoint areas of improvement. In a recent interview Milton Glaser made the observation that failures are sometimes better than successes: successes merely reaffirm your previously held views and reinforce the status quo; only failure provides genuine opportunities for improvement. But to actually produce this improvement takes more than simply admonishing an employee with a cliche like, "Don't do it again." Successful people and businesses know how to focus in on the specific factors that led to a failure. A pianist who simply continues to play a piece from the beginning, is unlikely to perform the piece as well as someone who spends extra time mastering the difficult passages. Similarly, a company that doesn't provide appropriate focus on the specific cause of a failure will not improve as quickly as one that does. Hence, you should offer people who have failed new ways to meet the challenge in the future. For instance, if a client presentation doesn't go well, offer to excuse the employee from other tasks in order that she or he can obtain sufficient training to do better next time. For a company, this is a prudent investment in the future.
- Use mistakes to understand the limits of current possibilities. Another way to learn from mistakes is to use them as opportunities for understanding the limits of a domain. I have a mathematician friend who spent more than a year with colleagues throughout the world working on a proof that ultimately didn't work. However, the funding for the project required a specific output, and so he did what scientists often do, and turned the study into a disproof of the original methodology. Far from being a cop-out, such a move represents a genuine advance in knowledge. This lesson can be applied to companies too. For instance, if there is a client product that cannot effectively compete against the competition based on feature or price, then that might be the signal that the company should leave that market, and head in a different direction that better suits its strengths. This is a loss, but because it allows you to redirect your resources, the project also represents a positive gain for future strategies.
- Steal from your mistakes. Google is a company that has managed to respond well to failures. For instance, consider the recent failure of Google's Wave service, a service Google pulled the plug on in August 2010. The service developed a fresh new approach to online messaging, but for various reasons it never caught on. However, despite the fact the service had to be closed, many features of that service are now entering the market as enhancements to other services that Google offers, and vestiges of Google Wave can be seen in Google Docs. This is one of the ways you can respond to failure in a creative way. If the overall system doesn't work, then analyze it down into its components and see if there are ways to construct new services from the pieces. This requires investing time in understanding a failure, and in seeing how to reintegrate the results into the overall strategy of a firm.
- Keep a record of mistakes. This is closely connected to the previous observation. It may be the case that there are no obvious ways to steal from a mistake at the moment, or that the reasons for the failure are currently too opaque. However, it may turn out that six months or a year down the road a new opportunity will arise in which the learnings can be applied to significant advantage. In order to take advantage of these situations, many details of the previous failure may need to be recorded and reviewed. If blame is attached to specific individuals they may be less forthcoming about the real reasons for the failure. Hence, a database of previously attempted initiatives incorporating a certain degree of anonymity should be maintained. I'm actually surprised so many companies do not have specific people in charge of understanding failures and finding new creative applications for the results. Given that the development costs of these failed initiatives are already paid for, such failures can often provide the proverbial "low hanging fruit."
- Turn the failure into a challenge. If it is particularly important to overcome a failure, throw down the gauntlet and constructively challenge people to do better. There is an amusing story recounted on Michael Schrage's HBR blog post of how Charles M. Schwab used a challenge to motivate workers. After learning that the day shift at a poor-performing mill produced only 6 heats, he proceeded to write a large "6." on the floor. When the night shift came on, they saw the number and knew that they could do better, and worked extra hard to put a "7" on the floor. The process accelerated when the day crew arrived, and by the time the competition completed the mill was producing more than any other mill in the plant. Competition is an effective tool for improvement whether it be in business, evolution of species, or in breaking the four minute mile. For this process to work well in a business it is important that the emphasis be on the success rather than the failure: in a race in which only one person wins, there is little point in berating everyone who didn't.
- Outsource a part of a challenge. If a product or service is generally working, but there is one component that is consistently failing, you may want to consider outsourcing that component of the product to a company that has the knowledge or resources to make it work. Although these may not be prime examples of "failures" Netflix was able to retool their algorithms for movie suggestions by outsourcing it through a competition. P&G famously decided to increase efficiency and reduce cost by aiming to outsource up to 50% of its R&D work to third-party providers. When companies outsource capabilities to other firms they can focus their resources on those aspects of projects in which they can obtain the highest value.
- Let an employee keep at it. There are a variety of ways of responding to failure, but one of the ones we value most in our society, whether it is in inventing or playing video games, is the value to keep at something. As the options above indicate, it is sometimes important to recognize when something will not work, but this doesn't mean that one should always give up. For instance, if there is an employee who is particularly passionate about a cause, why not let him or her spent a few hours each week pursuing it long after the company goes in a different direction? The most you are losing are a couple of hours, but the added gain in letting the passionate employee own the task, and of keeping the project within the company's fold may be significant if it does work out.
If you are striving to be innovative, it is important that you have a plan for dealing with inevitable failures. By concentrating creatively on what can be gained from a given case, one can turn current failures into future successes.
Do you have any interesting examples of failures that you turned into successes? Do you have ideas for other ways to make use of failures? Feel free to comment below.
By @jfhannon, CEO at Justkul Inc., a research firm focused on the needs of strategy and private equity.