By Kevin Meyer
Yesterday Sue Shellenbarger penned one of the best articles I've ever seen in The Wall Street Journal, and that's saying a lot. Those of us in the lean world – hey even the more people-oriented business world in general – know that failure can be a positive when it is a learning experience. The hidden value of people, again. Sue takes this to a whole new level.
Amid worries that we are becoming less innovative, some companies are rewarding employees for their mistakes or questionable risks. The tactic is rooted in research showing that innovations are often accompanied by a high rate of failure.
"Failure, and how companies deal with failure, is a very big part of innovation," says Judy Estrin of Menlo Park, Calif., a founder of seven high-tech companies and author of a book on innovation. Failures caused by sloppiness or laziness are bad. But "if employees try something that was worth trying and fail, and if they are open about it, and if they learn from that failure, that is a good thing."
Don't just accept failure, or even encourage the appropriate risk-taking that can create failure, but actually reward it? Yes, if it was worth trying and if it created a learning experience.
Grey's Mr. Myhren recently started handing out the "Heroic Failure" award because he was worried that fast growth at the agency, a unit of WPP's Grey Group in New York, was making employees "a little more conservative, maybe a little slower," he says. Creator of E*Trade's talking-baby ads, Grey New York has more than doubled to 900 employees since 2008.
I'm sure we've all been there at some point in our careers – the dynamic organization matures and slows down. What better way to get that youthful energy back than to screw it up? Ok, you know what I mean.
Many people succeed at producing innovations because they churn out a very large number of ideas, both good and bad, says Dean Keith Simonton, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis. "The most successful people tend to be those with the most failures," says Dr. Simonton, author of more than 500 studies and articles and 12 books on creativity and innovation.
Extracting lessons from foul-ups is the focal point of Michael Alter's "Best New Mistake" awards at SurePayroll, a payroll-services company in Glenview, Ill. Only people who are trying to do a good job, make a mistake and learn from it are eligible for the $400 annual cash award.
It's not as easy as just creating a reward. The culture has to embrace the positive aspects of failure.
However, all innovative companies tend to be alike in certain ways, Ms. Estrin says. They encourage coworkers to trust each other, comment on each other's work and take criticism in stride. Also, managers encourage intelligent risk-taking, tolerate failure and insist that employees share information openly.
The article provides some examples of real-life failures, potentially career-ending failures, that resulted in learning and were rewarded. Think used kitty litter and getting nasty calls from the tax guys. Yep, bad. And innovation will come.
So is your organization getting a bit sluggish? Perhaps it's time to fail a bit more, learn from it, and celebrate.