Not all failure created equal

Many managers don’t distinguish between when failure can be a valuable catalyst for learning and when it can be truly harmful

 
failuresuccess

Unfortunately, many managers don’t distinguish between when failure can be a valuable catalyst for learning and when it can be truly harmful, leaving employees unsure about when to take risks and experiment, and when to play it safe. For managers and employees, the key to getting this right is understanding whether the organisation is in execution mode or innovation mode.

I was reminded of this difference while teaching in Silicon Valley last year. As everyone knows, the area between San Francisco and San Jose has thousands of start-up companies, as well as dozens of innovation “outposts” set up by established companies from around the world.

In talking with the people who are involved with these innovation efforts, the striking thing is not their descriptions of success, but of the failures that helped them along the way. In Silicon Valley (and other hotbeds of innovation), failure is badge of honour and a prerequisite for success – not something to be ashamed of.

For these innovators, a successful company, and a successful career, requires a continuing series of rapid experiments, tests, hypotheses and pivots, which means that nobody gets it right the first time (or the second or third). As a result, failure is highly valued.

In contrast, the established companies that I’ve spent most of my career working with are focused on executing what they already know how to do instead of innovating something new. And when failure occurs in the context of execution, it can harm results or reputation or create undue risk. So even when execution-focused executives say that it’s all right to fail, they usually don’t really mean it.

The real challenge for leaders is not to either accept or reject failure, but rather to differentiate between whether they are in execution or innovation mode. Being in execution mode means that standard operating practices have been developed and need to be implemented with as little deviation as possible.

Sure there can be improvements made, but these have to be done carefully and explicitly, under controlled conditions, so that the basic operations are not disrupted. As such, failure needs to be minimised or eliminated. Innovation mode, on the other hand, is when standards still don’t exist and best practices are still being discovered and tested.

In this kind of situation, it’s important to try out new ideas, formats and processes – and allow room for plenty of failure – in order to learn what works and what does not. Once the focus becomes clear, managers can more easily communicate what the appropriate attitude toward failure should be. The reason why many established firms struggle with innovation is that they bring the execution mentality with them, and then don’t encourage the failure necessary to develop new products, services or processes.

So yes, failure is a key to learning, growing and figuring out what works. But before you either celebrate or punish failure, make sure you know what you are trying to achieve by doing so. – Copyright Harvard Business Review 2014

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.