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  • Is Failure Required for Successful Innovation?
  • Companies have been rewarding employees who fail, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal back at the end of September. The article (Better Ideas Through Failure, September 27, 2011) described how some companies actually give employees a trophy or a cash award for their failures.

    The rationale for rewarding failure: research studies show that successful innovation is often preceded by a series of failures. Thus, companies conclude that more failure is needed in order to achieve innovation success. So, failure is encouraged. Of course, it's not supposed to be failure merely for the sake of failing. It's intended to be the failure needed to travel forward along the path to eventual success. After all, the research seems to provide compelling evidence that this path truly does lead to success.

    Further justification for rewarding failure comes from the life of Thomas Edison. Edison reframed failure as learning what doesn't work. He is known for saying, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." If someone as great as Edison embraced failure, shouldn't failure be encouraged?

    Thus, we have a double faceted justification for rewarding failure. First, research shows that failure precedes successful innovation. Additionally, even the great Thomas Edison saw value in failure. Therefore, we better encourage and reward failure if we want to be successful. Right?

    Not so fast. It is important to understand what is really going on here. A closer look reveals that something else besides failure is playing a key role in innovation success. This other factor precedes successful innovation, just like failure often does.

    What is this other factor that precedes successful innovation? It is learning.

    It doesn't matter whether the failures are identified in a research study or are Edison's numerous failures. Either way, learning is what enables the failures to drive future success. And, Edison's famous saying that he has not failed essentially emphasizes the importance of learning, even if it's learning what does not work.

    Furthermore, research that shows failure precedes innovation can be deceiving since it's easy to be misled by a research finding that occurs when something else is happening concurrently. And, that is the case when both failure and learning often precede innovation success. When the two precede success, research can easily identify failure as what often happens before successful innovation, even though it is learning that's more crucial. Thus, the research can leave the mistaken impression that failure is a common requirement for innovation success.

    Yet, failure is not required. Learning, not failure, is what's needed for successful innovation. Learning provides the know-how required for success. That's why failure's occurrence along the road to success hardly makes it a requirement. Failure is one just way to learn, but it is not the only way.

    Success can also be a source of learning, and can pave the way for greater accomplishment down the line. For example, the biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson points out that long before founding Apple, Steve Jobs and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak worked together on a small venture that made a telephony product known as the Blue Box. They produced a small batch of these items, marketed them to college students, and completely sold out. Their innovative product, as well as their venture to market it, was successful--though on a small scale.

    As the Jobs biography points out, this little venture enabled Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak to learn how to work together. This helped prepare them for grander future innovation success with Apple. And, what the two Steves learned from this small venture came via success, not failure.

    Learning can come through doing, as was the case for the two Steves working together. It can also come from research, from formal training classes, from observing, from being guided by someone more experienced, or from other sources. Sometimes learning from more passive sources may need to be strengthened with some hands on experience. But, the learning does not have to be failure; it can be progression from doing something simple or small scale, and gradually working up to more complex successes.

    The value of learning and knowledge in success surfaces in my 25+ years of research into business success and failure patterns. My findings indicate that learning and know-how, not necessarily failure, is what paves the way for eventual success. The preponderance of failures before great success makes it tempting to think failure is always required for greater success. But, often it is not. Out of necessity, tolerating some failure can be beneficial, and helps prevent being completely paralyzed by fear of failure. Yet, this does not mean failure should be encouraged and rewarded. Doing so is not necessarily a ticket to great success and can often be detrimental.

    So, if your company wants to reward failure, ask yourself: what are you really rewarding? Does what you reward provide the learning your company needs? Is failure an effective way to provide that learning or are their better ways to learn? Does failure have consequences that could be avoided with better learning? How serious are these consequences? Might you be better off encouraging learning, recognizing that some of the learning may come from failure, and perhaps not treating failure too harshly? Would this be a better path to great achievement than encouraging and rewarding failure merely because failures can often, but not always, precede great success?

    Some failures will inevitably happen. And, many of these failures will teach valuable lessons. So, make the most of these failures by learning from them. But, do you really want to encourage and reward failure, when there are often better ways to learn?

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