Foster Innovation for a Better Tomorrow


Rethink Failure

“Success is not built on success. Not great success. Great success is built on failure, frustration, even catastrophe.” – Sumner Redstone

The “fail fast” philosophy has been prolific among lean startups.  The concept is simple – cut losses early when you find something that isn’t working and pivot to an alternate approach.  However, while the concept is simple, the deeply rooted perception of failure needs to be addressed prior to embarking on the “fail fast” initiative.

We must rethink failure.  There is a fundamental problem with the word “failure”.  Failure can be positive.  Failure is part of our life experiences – it is a powerful learning tool.  However, failure can also be very negative – failing in school, failing in relationships, failing as a leader.  This negative connotation of the word is deeply ingrained in us.  We, as an organization, must be consciously aware of the impacts of this reality.  Failure must be perceived as a necessary consequence of doing something new, of venturing out and taking risks for the potential prosperity of the common good.  We must strive to separate the “learning” meaning from the “danger” meaning.  This is the challenge of the organization, as we can only call failure a learning experience after it happens.  Once we make it OK to make mistakes, we remove a barrier that will allow creative people to work freely.

Embarking on a new venture produces an unpredictable path.  We need to protect our teams as they navigate through the darkness.  We are, and need to be, deeply attached to and invested in our team members.  As in parenting, our primary task is to prepare our teams for the uncertainties that lie head, but allow them to stumble and falter in their pursuit of knowledge.  Focusing excessively on an unfaultable passage diminishes the ability for teams to improve and flourish.  If we are aiming for a zero-error outcome, we are taking zero risks.  We are missing opportunities for people to rise to challenges and realize long-term benefits.  To foster innovation, it is critical that these barriers are removed.

Uncover Hidden Problems

“It isn’t that they cannot find the solution.  It is that they cannot see the problem.” – G. K. Chesterton

Creativity is the process by which we solve problem, but how do we ensure that the bright minds of our organizations are focused on problems worth solving?  How do we face and address problems that we can’t see?  There are forces within the organization that are blocking creativity.  Intelligent people within your organization are missing something required for their survival – arduous problems.  Solving problems is at the heart of creativity.  These problems are typically hidden within the organization as a result of fear – the fear of repercussion as a result of their opinions and dissatisfactions.  To uncover these hidden problems, the communication structure can not be the same as the organization structure.

To advocate open lines of communication, consider establishing ad-hoc “think-tanks” throughout the organization.  There are a number of guiding principles that will ensure everyone is fully invested in helping each other solve organizational challenges.

  1. Peers talking to peers: This group is not meant for bosses to talk to employees.  Everyone’s opinions are considered equal.
  2. People with authority should not start discussions: In fact, in the words of Pixar’s president Ed Catmull, “they should shut the hell up for the first twenty minutes”.
  3. To give and share honestly: This is not the time or place to hold in your true feelings and emotions.  While respect needs to be maintained, only honest feedback will allow the group to prosper.
  4. Diversity and Inclusion: In order to produce high-quality innovative ideas, it is imperative the group represents a diversity of thought, experience, and personal background.  Diversity has many dimensions that should be considered, including, but not limited to, race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and age.

Principles don’t always work – egos get in the way.  Monitor the dynamics of the group very carefully and make sure discussions are moving in a productive direction.  There will be many discussions with no tangible outcomes.  However, every once in a while, when the egos disappear from the room and all attention is on the problem, magic happens.

Final Thoughts

Everyone must feel that they own the culture of innovation that has been ingrained in the organizational fabric.  Everyone needs to be acting as a director – titles should not matter on how communication and strategy is driven.  New problems arise continuously and our creativity is based on how we solve those problems.

The concept of “fail fast” is not synonymous with thinking fast.  Instead of “move fast”, it’s time to think slow and fix things in your organization.  It’s time to think critically about your challenges, and the challenges we collectively face.