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?