When Failure is Fine

Every so often, we’re fortunate enough to hear about an organization that has mastered the art of innovation. In the arena of social media, Best Buy is getting a reputation for innovation and success. This week I learned about an extraordinary feature of Best Buy’s corporate culture when I read Cam Gross’ blog post regarding their implementation of Mix, which he described as “a start-up offering a mashup of email, SMS and Twitter-like functionality. ” When I wrote about Mix in an earlier post, I was impressed by their repeated attempts to broaden the conversation among Best Buy’s employees. Given their success with Blue Shirt Nation, I assumed that they ultimately would be successful with Mix. (Blame the lawyer in me for relying excessively on precedent.) What I didn’t fully understand was that, apart from their prior achievements, they had one of the most critical ingredients necessary for success. Here’s how Cam Gross describes it:

We have had almost zero conversation about Mix outside of the development group. When the article by Laura Fitton (@Pistachio) came out … word traveled inside Best Buy Corporate. A couple of departments have already raised their hands anxious to test/sample Mix. You just can’t beat having an environment where people want to try and are OK with “fail” as long as something is learned. [emphasis added]

Now, be honest. When was the last time you heard someone say that about your company?

We talked earlier about the value of mistakes when pursuing growth and innovation, and Dave Snowden has included in his Seven KM Principles the truth that we learn more from failure than from success. But have we ever gone so far as to say in our workplaces that it’s okay to fail as long as something is learned? Rather, don’t we circumscribe our actions and ambitions in order to avoid failure at all cost? Admittedly, if we do find ourselves staring failure in the eye, we’re usually willing to attempt to redeem that failure by looking for a nugget of learning. But I’d suggest that the Best Buy attitude goes further than that. It sounds like they don’t circumscribe actions and ambitions for fear of failure, but rather choose to risk doing something new — knowing that they can learn from it. With that orientation to innovation, they are bound to succeed.

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3 thoughts on “When Failure is Fine

  • October 30, 2008 at 11:40 am
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    Mary –

    When thinking about success and failure you need to think about the cost of failure. Dave Snowden educated me to the idea of safe-fail (not fail-safe) project. If the project fails what are the consequences?

    With safe-fail, there would little or no consequences (financial or personal).

    This blog was a safe-fail project. Few dollars invested and little time to set up. If it had tanked you would just move on. With little or no financial or personal loss.

    Of course this blog is a wonderful success. But you took the step because you were not afraid of the consequences of failure.

    Best Buy has a great organizational culture that does not lay personal blame for the failure of projects. They also start small and bottom-first so there is not a lot of time and money invested.

    Too many organizations (law firms in particular) attach too much time, money and personal blame on projects.

    As I pondered on twitter last night: “We need more people to be afraid of not succeeding, than to be afraid of losing. Too many of us just sit in the middle.”

  • November 21, 2008 at 5:28 am
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    Doug –

    The notion of “safe-fail” is a powerful one. It certainly frees people up to be adventuresome in their thinking, which is critical for innovation. So what would it take for risk adverse organizations to adopt a safe-fail approach?

    – Mary

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