Do You Need a Failure Target?

We know that failure is necessary for innovation.  In fact, experience shows that repeated failure usually precedes a major breakthrough.  So then, why do we constantly run from failure when we should be planning for it?  According to Scott Anthony, it’s because the cost of failure is perceived to be so high that we don’t believe we can afford it.  As a result, most of us focus hard on trying to ensure complete success even though we know that in most cases this is impossible without some preliminary failures.  Unfortunately, when you’re caught in the bind of trying to avoid failure at all costs, all you really manage to avoid is innovation.

If you’re serious about innovation, you should consider an alternative approach:

Make Failure Cheap. Give up the old method of creating do-or-die projects in which you tightly control development, foreclose alternative approaches, roll-out a fully-baked product and then hope it works.  Instead, institute a series of small experiments beginning early in the life of the project and allow the results of those experiments to determine the course of your project.  These experiments are not intended to be earth-shattering, but they are intended to provide a controlled means by which to test a concept or approach before too much has been committed.  In other words, these experiments come fast and cheap.

Make Failure Safe. Create a culture in which failure is not only accepted but welcomed, provided that it leads to learning.  And conduct your experiments in a manner that minimizes the collateral damage of failure.  Taken together, this organizational culture and controlled experimentation constitute a “safe-fail” approach to innovation.

Make Failure A Goal. The idea behind this is not to promote sub-par performance, but rather, to institutionalize an attitude of deliberate, calibrated risk-taking for the sake of learning and innovation.  Since this fundamentally different approach won’t be adopted without endorsement at the highest levels, consider having management set annual Failure Targets.  Scott Anthony suggests including in each employee’s annual review an evaluation of whether they met their Failure Target by achieving deliberate low-risk failures designed to promote innovation.  When employees are rewarded rather than castigated for taking sensible risks, you move closer to creating a culture that truly fosters innovation.

So, how high a Failure Target do you dare to set?

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9 thoughts on “Do You Need a Failure Target?

  • April 1, 2009 at 1:18 am
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    It all starts when we they don't keep score at the kids football games.

    Losing or getting knocked down isn't as bad as never learning you can get back up.

  • April 1, 2009 at 8:43 am
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    Too true, Greg. Thanks for the reminder about how basic this is and how early we start socializing people to run from failure — and innovation.

    – Mary

  • April 1, 2009 at 9:34 am
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    My favorite quote of the day: “when … trying to avoid failure at all costs, all you really manage to avoid is innovation.” Thanks!

  • April 1, 2009 at 12:33 pm
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    I've had the luxury of working in a team where experimentation is actively encouraged. It's so freeing to know that, if you decide that the idea you bashed around is not developing the way you thought it would, you can safely pull the plug, document what you tried and why you think it didn't work, and move on. No recriminations. You can then take what you learned in that experiment into your next one, or the one after that. Brainstorming sessions are wildly fun, rather than an exercise in managing expectations -everyone knows we're indulging in flights of fancy, rather than making a commitment to a fail-safe project.

    Of course, this only works when you experiment with small ideas (as noted above).

  • April 1, 2009 at 7:05 pm
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    Scott Berkun talks a lot of about this — actions/techniques to create space / aircover in the workplace for people to innovate (which inevitably involves a lot of “failure”). I was at Scott's O'Reilly seminar earlier this week — great stuff — http://www.scottberkun.com/

    (btw I just followed you on Twitter — found you via @johnt's twitter stream).

  • April 1, 2009 at 11:05 pm
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    Scott Berkun talks a lot of about this — actions/techniques to create space / aircover in the workplace for people to innovate (which inevitably involves a lot of “failure”). I was at Scott's O'Reilly seminar earlier this week — great stuff — http://www.scottberkun.com/

    (btw I just followed you on Twitter — found you via @johnt's twitter stream).

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