Not only is failure an option, it’s essential for innovation

“We learn wisdom from failure more than from success: we often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do; and he [sic] who never made a mistake, never made a discovery.” Samuel Smiles, Self-Help, 1859

We have all seen some version of this saying, attributed and mis-attributed to all kinds of people. If this sort of thing interests you, the indefatigable Quote Investigator has traced the development of the saying over nearly 200 years. And as people interested in technological innovation, we get this, right? Innovation will only happen with experiments, and by their nature we don’t know how they will turn out. Maybe they will be a success, maybe they will be a failure. If it’s a success, great, if not, you can learn something and, as they say in Silicon Valley, “fail fast”.

Except that, in general, that is not the way our culture and organisations work. When I qualified as an accountant, I did the usual thing and met with various recruitment consultants about potential next moves. One of them asked me to talk her through my cv to date. I explained that, after graduating, as I loved my subject, I had wanted to do a PhD. However, my application for funding was rejected, but when at a late stage I was offered funding to do a one-year research degree, I took it and did an MPhil instead. Deciding not to battle my way from there into academia, I went into commerce.

She looked at me with disappointment. “Stop there,” she said, “you can’t say that. Recruiters will want to hear that you aimed for something and got it. You’re going to have to explain it differently.” I’m pretty sure I took her advice, although even at that stage recruiters had limited interest in something that had happened several years earlier. But I remember the story as being revealing of an attitude still very prevalent – do not admit to failure at any costs.

It’s nonsense of course. The traditional wisdom is correct that if we are ever going to try new things, we are sometimes going to fail. And we should be upfront about this. A couple of years ago, presenting to the 25 people who worked for me, I told them that I was a veteran of failed projects and still had a career. I was trying to encourage them to get involved with new initiatives and developments. If they don’t work, I was saying, don’t worry, it doesn’t have to hold you back.

It’s been true for at least 200 years, but in a digital age it is critical that organisations understand this and live by it. In a previous post I referred to the exhaustive research behind the recent book, “The Technology Fallacy: How People Are the Real Key to Digital Transformation”. Among their findings are the fact that, although virtually all their interviewees agree that innovation is critical to success, many companies struggle to innovate, particularly those “not born in the digital age”. The biggest reason for this is a lack of experimentation and unwillingness of staff at all levels of an organisation to take risks. It goes against what most companies are built to do – optimise efficiency and avoid failure. There was a time when the environment was relatively stable and this was good enough, but no longer. The most successful companies on the planet experiment constantly and if it doesn’t work then fine, keep it contained, make sure you learn from it and move on.

I agree with the book’s argument on this – the biggest stumbling block by far to innovation in organisations is fear of taking risks and failure. I would love to see a world where leaders openly admitted to failures and discussed lessons learned, rather than frantically projecting an image of someone who always succeeds, which in practice either means they are lying or never try anything new. Then we will see innovation really flourish.