August 11, 2017

Making failure fun by daring to experiment

When I was in college I had a summer job in a factory and one of my duties was to stack the finished goods on a pallet for transport and then shrink-wrap the pallet with a heat gun. Often the wrap would fail and a hole would appear just as I was finishing, and I would have to start again. This took time and incurred the cost of a new pallet wrap, so I had the idea of using a product label to cover the hole. Not only did this make it easy to identify the goods on the pallet, it also saved time and money. I was rather pleased with my ‘innovation’ and you can imagine my disappointment when the factory manager came over to me later in the day and chewed me out in front of everyone for not following the process. We went back to re-wrapping pallets and I never tried anything new or shared any ideas at that company ever again. I just did what I was told and picked up my cheque.

There are many other examples I could cite from my career in the west, where the issue of ‘saving face’ is thought to be less important but the reality is that no one wants to be embarrassed or be seen to fail.

The obvious weakness of this shared mindset is that if we never try anything new, never take any risks, then we never make any breakthrough discoveries and our business simply stagnates. Almost every business leader I speak to declares that he/she wants the staff to be more innovative and my answer is always a question, “What happens to people who fail in your business?”

In almost all cases there are actually two answers to this question. First, nothing happens because people avoid experimentation and risk-taking, so they never fail. Second, if people do fail, they feel embarrassed, they are likely to miss out on promotions and bonuses, and their professional reputation suffers.

If you’re serious about innovation, as a leader you need to do two things: change the culture to celebrate failure and change the system to fail earlier, faster, and more cheaply.

Celebrate Failure

Of course when I talk about celebrating failure I don’t mean failure caused by negligent or unprofessional behaviour. I mean failure that comes from trying something different with the intention of finding a better way of serving the customer needs; experimenting, exploring, and finding out what works and what doesn’t.

It’s also important to understand the full implication of the term ‘celebrate failure’. It’s not actually the failure itself that you’re celebrating; it’s the learning that comes from that failure and which moves you closer to the right solution.

It’s important to remember to actually celebrate too. ‘Celebrate’ doesn’t just mean tolerate or ignore failure – it means publicly recognise people for trying something, failing, learning, and trying again. Promote people who do fail and learn over those that play it safe. Some companies even hold parties to celebrate failures – or rather to celebrate moving a step closer to the solution.

It may take many missteps to reach the goal; the famous brand of spray lubricant WD-40 is called that because it was the fortieth attempt to formulate it. How many companies would have given up after failure number one, ten, or thirty?


Change the Process and Fail Faster and Cheaper

Another vital step in building people’s confidence to risk something and try a different approach is to encourage them to use fast prototyping and testing with real customers. It’s incredible how many companies invest substantial time and money in bringing a finished product or service to market without ever showing it to a customer. The cost of failure at this late stage is huge and so is the embarrassment of a very public disaster.

If you want people to be more comfortable with experimentation, teach them the skills to fail fast, fail early, and fail cheaply – and so succeed faster. Whether it’s a product, a service, or an experience you can create a quick physical mock-up from everyday art supplies, a story board, or a role play to engage customers and get critical feedback on what works and what doesn’t. This costs virtually nothing and helps you ‘fail forward’ towards the next iteration and ultimately the great product or service that you bring to market.

Failing is fun in the right environment; when it’s a celebrated learning experience in a process of innovation leading to an even greater success. If your business isn’t embracing failure, then it’s heading for the biggest failure of all.

Richard Gilman is  the Senior Consultant at SEAC (formerly APMGroup) Southeast Asia’s leading Executive, Leadership and Innovation Capability Development Center. He can be reached at

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First Published in The Nation