Failure and Innovation

You’ve read it in the business press a hundred times: Failure is necessary for innovation. You’ve read it, but you probably don’t believe it. Or at least, you don’t believe that failure is the way to get promoted or to get a big salary increase, or to get that dream job down the road. And, it’s not exactly true that failure leads to innovation; it’s how failures are handled that determines whether innovation results.

This morning’s Wall Street Journal has an article, “Better Ideas Through Failure”, that contains stories from several companies that have figured out how to manage failure.

Grey New York, an ad agency, gives out a “Heroic Failure” trophy once each quarter, to the person who takes a big, edgy risk and fails, even though the idea had clearly seemed like a good one.

At SurePayroll, a payroll services company in Illinois, they now give out a “Best New Mistake” award: If you are trying hard, make a mistake, and learn from it, you’re eligible for the $400 reward.

In my book Group Genius, I give a few more examples of how innovative companies integrate failure into their culture. I talk about how the Italian design firm Alessi has a “museum of failed designs” that they proudly display; how the California design firm IDEO has a similar room filled with failed product ideas. I also describe the research that shows that serial innovators always fail more than everyone else, simply because they have more total ideas than everyone else. It turns out that creativity is a numbers game: exceptional creators are people who have ideas all the time. As I say in Group Genius, “Fail often, fail early, fail gloriously” (p. 178).