Most cultures reward and encourage success. Growing up, we learn quickly to highlight our brilliance and down-play our mistakes. The corporate world we operate in only reinforces that.
Do you remember how many times you had to fall off your bike before you could ride it successfully? You had to fail before you got it right. Had you been laughed at or criticized in those moments of lying on the asphalt would you ever have picked yourself up and tried another time?
Being an innovator or supporting innovation in your organization requires a willingness to embrace failure. And I mean really embrace it. It means allocating money to ideas that have no apparent business case. It means creating certain spaces for staff to experiment with no fear of retribution (think Google’s 20 percent idea). It means falling of your bike, again, scraping your knees, in the knowledge that at some point, something might come of the endeavor.
From failure comes huge learning for the people and the organization. Failure uncovers a gold mine of information that you had no access to before you started. Many readers will nod sagely at what appears to be obvious. But my experience tells me that most of us go out of our way to avoid failure. We have been institutionalized to only ever succeed (or at least be seen as succeeding) at every step and at every endeavor.
Don’t believe me? Here’s my challenge for you—write your own failure CV. Look back on your career, and write up each failure and what you learned from it. My own experience and that of friends shows me that putting pen to paper to outline our failures is remarkably hard because of our conditioning. And this is symptomatic of our unwillingness to see failure as the necessary stepping stones of innovation.
I remain convinced that we need to face failure head on. Failure is good. Embracing failure will allow us as leaders to unlock the innovation potential that currently lies dormant in our companies.