Real Innovators Don't Fear Failure

Talking about and even celebrating failure has become central to the folklore about entrepreneurs.

Does your business encourage experiments and “failing fast” as a source of innovation and quick learning?

That’s one of the six questions posed by Paul J.H. Schoemaker (Wharton School) and Steven Krupp (DSI) in their article “The Power of Asking Pivotal Questions,” in the Winter 2015 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review . The article builds on the authors’ new book, Winning the Long Game: How Strategic Leaders Shape the Future (PublicAffairs, 2014).

Schoemaker and Krupp write that asking “what if” questions challenges executives to incorporate broader perspectives. It stimulates “out-of-the-box dialogues that help leaders make better choices and find innovative solutions sooner.”

As an example, they cite the workplace experiments of David Ogilvy, a prominent U.S. advertising executive in the 1950s and 60s.

Ogilvy, they relate, “purposely ran ads that he and his team did not believe would work as a way to test their own theories about advertising. One of the experiments they tried was the famous Hathaway shirt advertisement featuring a man with an eye patch. This version of the ad (there were 17 others) was an impromptu experiment whose success took Ogilvy by surprise. The ad, in fact, was a brilliant success, ran for a long time and received several industry prizes.”

The challenge is that “learning from mistakes has much to do with a leader’s mind-set and the questions that he or she asks both before and after an unexpected event occurs,” Schoemaker and Krupp write. Their observations:

Strategic decision makers should abandon the pursuit of perfection.

That allows room for what the authors term “well-intentioned mistakes.” The best teams, they write, “try to fail fast, often and cheaply in search of innovation.”

Embracing failure will challenge most cultures.

“Few leaders are willing to give more than lip service to failure; most corporate cultures view missteps as crippling rather than as sources of innovation,” they write. “Only in Silicon Valley, perhaps, do people wear their failures with pride. The ‘blame’ culture that permeates most organizations paralyzes decision makers so much that they don’t take chances and they sweep missteps under the rug.”

Leaders should shine a light on mistakes as sources of new learning.

Schoemaker and Krupp write that to help a team learn faster, leaders must frame mistakes as valuable learning opportunities; respond to failure as temporary, isolated and not personal; and emphasize that learning from a decision is a goal in itself. They suggest that decision makers “publicize stories about failed projects that led to innovative solutions” and “try to extract learning from near misses.”

Sara Blakely, founder of the Spanx undergarments and apparel company and the youngest woman in the world to make $1 billion on her own, according to Forbes, credits her success in part to a question her father used to pose at the dinner table when she was growing up: “What have you failed at this week?” Schoemaker and Krupp say that the message Blakely got was that failure wasn’t about making mistakes, it was about not trying new things.

For more on how to make better decisions, including the other five of Schoemaker and Krupp’s six questions that challenge executives to incorporate broader perspectives, see the full article.