Get Comfortable with Failure; It's Part of the Innovation Process

Ann All

I found a business magazine called Success. I couldn't find one called Failure. That's no surprise, considering how much business leaders like to talk about success. But maybe they should spend more a more time talking about failure, since it's a key part of the more collaborative management approach that is beginning to replace traditional command-and-control management models at some companies.


Earlier this year, Cisco CTO Padmasree Warrior used the term "Next-Generation Collaborative Enterprise" to describe "a virtual organization that dynamically forms and executes against a company's priorities." Such enterprises would forgo the traditional command-and-control management style for one in which "clusters of experts" make decisions, which are then communicated through social media applications, wrote Warrior. Organizational functions will become less relevant, and the whole enterprise becomes more flexible and fluid.


Warrior said existing technology architectures will need to change to incorporate mobility, security, synchronous and asynchronous communication, personalization, community, team spaces, borderless networks, rich interactions and possibly "additional functionality that will evolve over time." Just as important -- if not more so -- companies will have to tweak their traditional business processes to leverage all of this collaboration.


I remembered Warrior's vision while reading a SmartBlog recap of a presentation by Altimeter Group founder Charlene Li, author of the forthcoming book "Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead." Merritt Colaizzi, author of the SmartBlog post, writes that Li espouses "a new kind of leadership - one based on letting go of the command-and-control model and embracing openness and relationship building."


She then lists five of Li's suggestions for achieving open leadership. I assume they are listed in the order Li gave them. I took the liberty of listing the fifth step first, for reasons that should seem pretty obvious, given the theme of this post:

  • Embrace failure. Li suggests recording failures as well as successes to "stay authentic and open to the fact that not everything succeeds."
  • Align openness with your organization's strategic goals. Li advises selecting and starting with a goal that will benefit from more openness.
  • Clearly define your goals for this more open approach.
  • Recruit team leaders who are comfortable with forgoing a command-and-control mindset.
  • Clearly define the outlines and risks of your experiments in openness.


Google's corporate culture is one that allows for failure, as I wrote last month. I cited a comment from Don Dodge on his The Next Big Thing blog:

Google's culture seems to follow the Thomas Edison approach which paraphrased is "I haven't failed, I've just found lots of approaches that don't work, and I am closer to the solution.

I also shared some of Dodge's insights on Google's processes for setting goals and measuring success. Two I especially liked, given they fit my theme of making it acceptable to fail: Set the bar so high it seems out of reach -- on purpose -- and make it clear that achieving 65 percent of the impossible is better than 100 percent of the ordinary.


Recognizing that failure is a necessary part of innovation is also mentioned in this post on unleashing empowered employees by Forrester Research analyst Josh Bernoff, co-author with Li (a busy woman) of "Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies." Josh suggests making employees HEROes (highly empowered and resourceful operatives), noting that doing so will require new ways of thinking from managers, employees themselves, and the IT departments that support them. His suggestions for managers:

You must constantly communicate that innovation is a priority and reward it, including things that fail (emphasis mine). You need to run interference for your workers with groups like PR and IT. But you also need to assess and manage risks from these projects, and set clear corporate priorities that your HEROes can follow.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Mar 24, 2010 8:10 AM Janelle Janelle  says:

Failure is definitely part of the innovation process, but having the ability to identify the bad ideas quickly and reward and recognize good ideas earlier-on is critical for the success of any innovation process. Brightidea's recent case study with customer British Telecom shows hard dollar RIO from using an idea management system as the backbone for creating and sustaining a culture of innovation - one that see many failures, but also one that gathers and executes on equally, if not more, truly great ideas.

Read the full case study here: http://bit.ly/dtdDct

Mar 24, 2010 12:24 PM Ann All Ann All  says: in response to Janelle

Thanks, Janelle, for the comment. Agree that being able to identify failures and to correct them quickly is important. I'm not advocating failure, of course, but pointing out that companies should discuss failures more openly to learn from them rather than sweeping them under the rug.


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