Many of our modern organisations and government processes are intolerant of failure. This is an unfortunate situation because at its heart innovation stems from risk-taking and experimentation - which means high rates of failure are inevitable. Therefore if our organisations are intolerant of failure they must be limiting innovation. Organisations of the future will require a culture and system of "successful failure" to turn this around.
Research supports the notion that innovative efforts include a high level of failure. Many of the famous quotes that we see around innovation make direct references to failure. Thomas Edison is supposed to have described his struggles to find a suitable filament for his light bulb as :
"I have not failed 1,000 times. I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways to NOT make a light bulb."
Yet we do not see much tolerance for failure in many of our modern organisations. One has to wonder how Edison would do in a modern day performance evaluation. We see examples of this systemic intolerance of failure all around us. Not for profit organisations fear failure because they fear the attendant publicity and funding risks that are inherent in the system. Many government officials have risen through the ranks by not taking risks, and therefore, not failing. This means they have avoided doing anything remotely risky or innovative. Commercial organisations systematically celebrate and reward success and downplay - or even hide - failure.
No one set out to fail. It's embarrassing and attention grabbing. We've been taught since infancy that we should avoid failure. However if we recognise that taking risks and failing in certain ways are requirements for innovative and creative progress, then perhaps our modern organisations can approach things differently.
Jeff Bezos recently said "By the time you are betting the company, it means you haven't invented for too long" referring to his willingness to place enough bets and place them early enough in order to maintain innovation flow. This requires a culture that is tolerant of the sort of failure that drives innovation.
If the overall approach is to:
1. Design many innovative approaches
2. Try as many of them as possible
3. Get feedback and iterate
4. Support what works
5. Kill what doesn't work at the right time
Then we could fail in:
* The design process - as long as we are reviewing and learning from this type of failure then we can be tolerant of that failure. Repeated mistakes of the same type in the design process should not be tolerated.
* Not trying enough - not taking enough risks.
* The execution - we should not be trying to be more tolerant of failure of competency, effort, resourcing, etc
* Killing what will work too early - hard to identify if this is happen because if a project is killed off we will never know if it would have been successful.
* Continuing to support what is not going to work for far too long which chews up resources and energy. Again there is a balance here as perseverance is a much needed and admired trait.
But we have to recognise that we can do all these things perfectly and still fail because we are operating in an inherently risky area. This is the region of successful failure. This is the main area where tolerance of failure has to be built up.
Celebrate the people that have tried and failed successfully, as well as those that have tried and succeeded.
Build Failure into the process
Organisations need to create structures that are actually designed to increase the level of successful failure by increasing the desire and capacity to undertake projects and strategies that have a higher risk attached to them.
Put people in the right jobs & trust them
There will be people who have better skills in the design and execution of new projects and ideas. We need to identify them, give them the resources, and make sure that they feel safe and trusted to do what they are being asked to do. This will require behaviours that reinforce trust and tolerance of successful failure to be practiced by everybody in the organisation.
"Fail Fast" -- and move on!
It takes a certain type of person and organisation to kill off what is not working. Psychologically we like to cling to our ideas and our projects. We must build a culture of getting this balance right.
Maintain an intolerance of "poor failure"
Celebrating and rewarding successful failure does not mean being more tolerant of failure of effort, willingness to learn, having the appropriate skills and other factors that affect execution. In fact differentiating between the two is the key to this approach working.
Plan and measure according to the context.
The more complex the problem, the more you should expect failure. The more risky the environment the more failure you will have. Failure tolerance levels and measurement systems have to be designed to these contexts.
Build a measurement system that rewards and celebrates the right type of failure.
We propose adopting a similar measurement system to the baseball at bat statistics where you are measured on both the number of hits you take and the percentage of success and failure. Successful performance would be a high number of attempts within an acceptable band of success/failure percentage. Poor performance would include low number of attempts, very high failure rates (in the context of the situation) or very low failure rates (not taking enough risks).