If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough

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In an environment that worships innovation, too few companies have the guts to really do what it takes to generate new ideas. Unless a company is pushing the boundaries back, it won’t be innovating. To push boundaries, requires experimentation, and that implies failure – some experiments will work, and some won’t. But, are you prepared to tell your customers that you’re trying so hard, that sometimes you’re going to fail?

Imagine this as a customer service mission statement:

‘We will try so hard to please you, that we will sometimes fail in the attempt.’

The last ten years have seen the rise and rise of spin doctors in the political realm. They’ve probably always been there, but now it seems that everybody knows about them, and the politicians don’t seem to mind that we know. The role of the ‘spin doctor’ is really one of communication, and trying to ensure that there are no misunderstandings about what is said, and what is meant by what is said. Sadly, the outcome of this process is that words are manipulated, meanings veiled, and nobody believes anything that is said.


The old joke goes: ‘How do you know a politician is lying?’. The answer: ‘His lips are moving’. Its not really a joke, when its that close to the truth.

The reason for the spin is that politicians are into playing it safe. When last did you hear a politician ‘put it out there’? When last did you hear someone running for office go against the flow, stick to their principles, stand by their word, and not muddy the waters when the going got tough?

OK, politicians are easy targets, I know. So, let’s get back to your company or organization. Are you playing it safe, hedging your bets, trying to be all things to all people? Or are you making some mistakes?

We all know that innovation is the new religion of the 21st century. Everyone is looking for the next big thing. There’s magic in the air. Or, at least, we wish there was. Companies are throwing millions at innovation, with very little results at the moment. They’re discovering that putting creative geniuses in a room with an unlimited budget does not guarantee that a great idea will emerge. As business guru, Gary Hamel, lecturer on innovation at London Business School, cheekily puts it:

‘The problem for many slow-growing companies is that they possess a very low corporate sperm count. Unlike those wacky investors out there in Silicon Valley, they aren’t experimenting with enough new ideas to have any real hope of stumbling upon a few that prove to be truly transformational. Many CEOs seem to posses a vain hope that a handful of really smart senior execs, aided by a few even smarter consultants, can quickly land on the one really big idea with the power to revive corporate fortunes. They don’t want millions of sperm — what a waste. They’re looking for the one giant sperm that will do it all. Unfortunately, biology doesn’t work this way, and neither does innovation.’

In order to have innovation, you must have experimentation. If you’re experimenting, then by definition, you should be having some failures. If your experiments don’t result in some failures, you’re not experimenting enough. But the problem is that your company is like a bunch of politicians – your company hates failure. But you cannot love innovation and hate failure. The one is a necessary precursor of the other.

In fact, we argue that you need to so embrace failure that you actually measure and reward it. Of course, you don’t want to promote the biggest idiot in your company to CEO (for some, its too late, he’s already there), what we mean by embracing failure, is that you don’t mind rewarding people every time they make a mistake for the first time. Rewards must be tangible, preferably financial, in order to be effective. This approach therefore requires a company to have a system that captures all of the experiments that each staff member undertakes, evaluates them, and records the outcomes. Where an experiment fails, this knowledge is as important as when it succeeds.

Legend has it that Thomas Edison, the world’s most famous inventor, created nearly 1,000 failed light bulbs before stumbling across the one that did work. His response to people who were incredulous at his persistence was that he didn’t see the 1,000 failures as wasted, he saw them simply as learning 1,000 ways NOT to make a light bulb.

Would you let your employees fail that much? We suggest that if they’ve come up with 1,000 unique and different ways to fail, then they should be rewarded every time for their persistence. The one, world shattering right way to do it can’t be far away.

The Economist, 4th December 1999, put it this way: ‘Unlike cutting costs, or making an acquisition, innovation does not happen just because the chief executive wills it. It is confoundedly difficult to come up with new ideas year in, year out – especially brilliant ones. Underneath the gurus’ diagrams and charts, most of the available answers seem to focus on two strengths that are difficult to create by diktat: a culture that looks for new ideas, and leaders who know the ones to back.’

Creating that culture that looks for new ideas means creating a culture in which failure is fine. More than fine. It is actually encouraged.

‘So what’s the lesson for your company? Just this: If you want to find a few ideas with the power to enthrall customers, foil competitors, and thrill investors, you must first generate hundreds and potentially thousands of unconventional strategic ideas. Then you’re going to have to take the best of these and turn them into low-cost, low-risk strategy experiments–a new distribution channel here, a new pricing approach there, a new service offering somewhere else. Out of these experiments will emerge a few ideas worth pursuing wholeheartedly. Put simply, you have to crush a lot of rock to find a diamond.’ That’s Gary Hamel again.

As you look at your company or organization, ask yourself: ‘How often are we failing in our pursuit of being better than world class?’ This is a critical performance indicator in your desire to be better than the best. But it’s a scary one, too. And takes a lot of guts.

It takes even more guts to invite your customers to join you in this quest. Go back to the top of this article and read the customer service mantra I suggested. Have you got the guts to say that to your customers, and to create an environment where your staff and customers are all involved in getting better and better? Or, are you a politician, who’d prefer to play it safe?

If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough!

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