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Four Ways to Fail Forward Faster

100825_erformance-teamsIf you’re a “high potential” manager in a good-sized company these days, expect to get The Call. It’ll be your chief knocking on your door with an important assignment. He or she will be calling upon you to lead an initiative to jumpstart growth. That’s suddenly the driving necessity right now. It’s as if, all at once, Wall Street institutional investors have become impatient, and companies are realizing that cost-cutting alone is not going to cut it.

But before you say yes to an initiative that will cost you nights and weekends with your family over the next twelve months, hold on for just a minute. My strong suggestion is to ask yourself some important questions regarding the issue of “failure” in your firm. These questions could give you an insight into what you’re up against in terms of the innovation challenge, and whether you say yes, or wiggle out of it.

Your biggest obstacle to success is not a lack of growth opportunities. It’s liable to be from your company’s prevailing culture as it relates to risk-taking, and that forbidden word “failure.” So, here are five questions to ponder before saying yes to your CEO:

1. Does your organization realize that failure is in the innovation arena is different than in the execution realm?

Operationally excellent companies are good at one thing above all else – execution. Inevitably, they are determined to eliminate failure. A production line that goes down is failure. A product batch that has a slight color blur in the packaging is a failure and somebody’s fault. Tolerating or “celebrating” failure in this context is an invitation to chaos. But in the innovation realm, failure is another matter. It is to be expected. It is a way of thinking about unsuccessful experimentation. Think of Edison trying mightily to find the perfect filament for his electric light bulb. Three thousand “failures” and then success. But the innovation immature organization doesn’t get this. It wants to punish failure of all types, and unless there’s enlightenment, it will bring down the attempts to innovate.

2. What happens to people associated with failure in your organization?

Are they marched off to Siberia, or are they promoted? Are they celebrated for their bravery or sanctioned for their mistakes? I was once called in to a major tech company to ferret out a rumor that people in one of the divisions had been punished for failure. When I started asking around, nobody had any real evidence of an actual instance, an “urban legend.” Apparently just the whiff of punishment was causing an onslaught of risk adverse behavior. Senior management wanted to get to the bottom of it and did, by holding an Innovation Day and emphasizing the need for innovation (and discussing failure).

3. How advanced is your senior management team’s knowledge of driving growth through innovation?

Experienced entrepreneurs and “intrapreneurs” know that constant experimentation, fast prototyping and fast learning are the only way to innovate. They instinctively relate to Soichiro Honda, founder of Honda Motor Company, who once said: “To me, success can only be achieved through repeated failure and introspection. In fact, success represents the one percent of your work which results from the ninety nine percent that is called ‘failure’.” But those who have never been involved in innovation projects, those who have not studied innovation in school or read up on the topic, are painfully ignorant of this fact. In many companies that I am privy to being on the inside, the chief is as ignorant of the elements of innovation as anyone else. If you accept The Call in a company with an uninformed leader, know that a big part of your challenge will be educating your senior team to these realities.

4. Does your organization hide failures or worse, assign blame?

Think back to projects and initiatives that didn’t work out. What happened? Innovation-adept organizations get “failures” out in the open. Their leaders get involved when projects are going off the rails. They coach and pitch in and give support. They analyze what went wrong, and why. They don’t point fingers and punish people. If an organization covers up, others can’t learn. And worst of all, it sends a signal to the entire culture: avoid risk-taking at all costs. Lesson: True failure occurs when the organization doesn’t learn from other people’s failure.

If you have trouble thinking of people in your company who would be considered “risk-takers” what does that tell you? Rule of thumb: an organization must reward failures, not just successes, by praising and honoring people who take risks. If treated as outliers, this gives you an insight into the behaviors your company has asked for previously. As we all know, behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated, and your taking on the innovation challenge means you’re inevitably going to need to reform the culture too. In order to form a successful innovation initiative that moves the growth needle, you’re first going to have to deal with cultural inertia and even dysfunction.

Okay, so having now cautioned you about some of the pitfalls to leading an innovation initiative, I hope you’ll say yes to your chief even if conditions aren’t perfect (they never are), even if you sense that your “risk-adverse culture” is worse than ever, and that your chief really doesn’t understand innovation. Over the years, innovation leaders have told me that this experience was one of the highlights of their career, even if it was tough going at times, filled with setbacks and fending off the “corporate antibodies.” In the final analysis, if you haven’t failed at something lately, you must not be trying hard enough.

Robert B. Tucker is an innovation speaker based in Santa Barbara, California.

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