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To succeed, you must be free to fail

November 26, 2014

Let’s play word association. When I say the word “failure,” what words come to mind? Are any of them positive? Doubtful.

Yet “failure,” or better yet, the ability to learn from “failure” is a huge factor in an organization’s ability to innovate. And as Jon Gertner’s Fast Company article “The Truth About Google X: An Exclusive Look Behind The Secretive Lab’s Closed Doors” explains, being free to fail is absolutely critical to any organization’s ability to succeed.

“Astro Teller is sharing a story about something bad. Or maybe it’s something good. At Google X, it’s sometimes hard to know the difference.

“Teller is the scientist who directs day-to-day work at the search giant’s intensely private innovation lab, which is devoted to finding unusual solutions to huge global problems. He isn’t the president or chairman of X, however; his actual title, as his etched-glass business card proclaims, is Captain of Moonshots—‘moonshots’ being his catchall description for audacious innovations that have a slim chance of succeeding but might revolutionize the world if they do. It is evening in Mountain View, California, dinnertime in a noisy restaurant, and Teller is recounting over the din how earlier in the day he had to give some unwelcome news to his bosses, Google co-founder Sergey Brin and CFO Patrick Pichette. ‘It was a complicated meeting,’ says Teller, 43, sighing a bit. ‘I was telling them that one of our groups was having a hard time, that we needed to course-correct, and that it was going to cost some money. Not a trivial amount.’ Teller’s financial team was worried; so was he. But Pichette listened to the problem and essentially said, ‘Thanks for telling me as soon as you knew. We’ll make it work.’

“At first, it seems Teller’s point is that the tolerance for setbacks at Google X is uncharacteristically high—a situation helped along by his bosses’ zeal for the work being done there and by his parent company’s extraordinary, almost ungodly, profitability. But this is actually just part of the story. There happens to be a slack line—a low tightrope—slung between trees outside the Google X offices. After the meeting, the three men walked outside, took off their shoes, and gave the line a go for 20 minutes. Pichette is quite good at walking back and forth; Brin slightly less so; Teller not at all. But they all took turns balancing on the rope, falling frequently, and getting back on. The slack line is groin-high. ‘It looked like a fail video from YouTube,’ Teller says. And that’s really his message here. ‘When these guys are willing to fall, groan, and get up…and they’re in their socks?’ He leans back and pauses, as if to say: This is the essence of Google X. When the leadership can fail in full view, ‘then it gives everyone permission to be more like that.’”

Click here to read the rest of the story.

That last quote really hit home with me: “When the leadership can fail in full view, ‘then it gives everyone permission to be more like that.’” Wow. How many leaders do you know that broadcast their failures and what they have learned from them? And when they don’t, what signal does it send to the rest of the organization?

I’ve worked to help many companies be more innovative, yet I constantly hear from employees that failure at their organizations is viewed as a punishable event, not a learning experience. They love the innovation processes that we teach them, but also report that the hardest part of implementing proven innovation processes is getting the leadership comfortable with experimenting and investigating the unknowns. The incorrect perception is: any idea with “unknowns” is risky. And risky can be the death knell of any innovative idea. The paradox here is: experimenting and learning is the best way to remove a significant portion of the risk! Who implements something that has never existed before without testing it first?

It’s impossible to innovate if everything has to work the first time and all the time. In fact, I don’t like the word failure. It sends the wrong message. There’s actually a huge difference between failing and trying something that doesn’t work. And I’m not just talking semantics here. Trying something that doesn’t work is focused on learning, not just the outcome. And nothing can be a failure if it teaches you something.

The failure occurs when nothing is learned. Or worse—not even tried.

Leaders need to understand the importance of experimenting to learn and encouraging experimentation if they want their organizations to be able to innovate on demand.

And we need a new word for “failure.”

At Linkage, we’re lucky to work with powerful partners in the innovation area. All of them—IDEO, Clayton Christensen, and Stephen Shapiro—include experimentation (not “failure”) as critical parts of their innovation processes. Click here to learn more.

How does your organization deal with “failure”? Are innovative ideas “risky”? Is “failure” a punishable offense? Or is trying something that doesn’t work part of a growth process that nearly every organization needs to survive in the hyper-changing business world of today? Share your thoughts and insights with us in the comments box below.

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