For the longest time business and military leaders wouldn’t dare utter the word failure in front of their organizations. For many the credo was that failure wasn’t an option. Times have certainly changed but many organizations are just scratching the surface in addressing the difficult issues surrounding failure.
When executives are allowed to hide their innovation failures the entire organization suffers. False expectations are set for the entire group of executives, innovation leaders see their careers scuttled, and every other employee fails to learn from the failure. Without clear organizational expectations of documenting, sharing, and learning from our failures we will continue to see them covered up. Left to our own devices we will naturally seek to avoid our failures and move into self-preservation mode. In my work helping organizations to build strong innovation processes this is a common issue but it can be resolved.
Last month consulting firm Accenture released a report (“Why Low-Risk Innovation Is Costly“) on the state of innovation at big companies from the U.S., U.K., and France. Their survey of 519 executives at large companies concluded that most were disappointed with the return on their innovation investment. Many of these companies cited that they were scaling back their disruptive innovation efforts and settling for more incremental innovation like product line extensions.
This morning there was a great article from MPR reporter Tom Robertson that touched on how the elimination of shop class in high schools is seen as a contributor to decline in skilled manufacturing candidate across the state. “Worker skills shortage starts in high school” parallels a book that I had read a few months back from Matthew Crawford titled Shop Class as Soul Craft. In his book Crawford asks us to examine the intent and outcomes of our fervent battle cry for all kids to go to college and to become part of the information economy rather than becoming makers, builders, and fixers.
So everyone is talking about the importance of “transparency” in business these days – customer transparency, financial transparency, even radical transparency. Do you think you organization is open and transparent? Maybe your company uses social media to continually engage your constituents in every possible social media vehicle or maybe your CMO has been a little “overly transparent” when on more than one occasion he shared a corporate secret via his new blog. Sure you’ll talk about your wins, your new strategy, or your latest promotions but have you ever been transparent with your failures? Have you ever published an annual report that detailed your failed initiatives and the failures in your operations?
As a follow up to my post last year about how we need to “learn to tolerate failure… even in the medical profession” I wanted to share this TEDx presentation (Doctors make mistakes. Can we talk about that?) from Dr. Brian Goldman (@NightShiftMD). In it Dr. Goldman captures perfectly the flawed logic of how we all try to portray perfection in our work, especially those god like creates called doctors. In business our failures can cost money or even jobs but in medicine our failures can cost lives. And not just the life of patient who suffered from the original error but the lives of other patients based on the repetition of that same error because it is never shared and thus never learned from.
Everyone credits Steve Jobs for the success of Apple but where would Apple be without their “failed” former CEO John Sculley who had to oust Steve Jobs from the company he founded? Not to say that their contributions were both equal but they were both instrumental in shaping Apple for its incredible success. It is well understood that organizations need different types of leaders at different times. Sometimes organizations need a good failure to create the drive that will propel them toward success. And sometimes leaders find their passion within the boiling animosity of working relationships. All of these situations were found with the Steve Jobs vs. John Sculley saga at Apple. So how can we learn from them?
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