Create a Culture of Successful Failure

Create a Culture of Successful FailureVery often the best way to test an idea is not to analyze it but to try it. The organization that implements lots of ideas will most likely have many failures but the chances are, it will reap some mighty successes too. By trying numerous initiatives we improve our chances that one of them will be a star. As Tom Kelley, general manager of the design and development firm IDEO, puts it, “Fail often to succeed sooner.”

Recognizing the Importance of Failure

Deborah Bull is the creative director for the Royal Opera House in London. She is keen to encourage small companies of artists to come out with mad ideas and to try them. As she noted in a Financial Times article in 2006, “We need to get away from the idea that everything has to be a hit at the box office and a hit with the critics. If everything we do succeeds, then we are failing, because it means we are not taking enough risks.” Although it is arguable that an artistic bent almost certainly assures this viewpoint, Bull’s point is transferable to any industry.

For example, Honda Motor Company entered the U.S. market in 1959 with its range of low-powered motorcycles. It endured failure after failure as it learned the hard way that little motorcycles popular in the Tokyo suburbs were not well received on the wide open roads of the United States. Honda eventually brought out a range of high-powered motorcycles that proved popular in the new – and far different – marketplace. Soichiro Honda, the company’s founder said, “Many people dream of success. Success can only be achieved through repeated failure and introspection. Success represents the 1 percent of your work that results from the 99 percent that is called failure.”

What made Silicon Valley so successful as a center of high-tech growth? It represents a Darwinian process of failure. Author Mike Malone puts it like this: “Outsiders think of Silicon Valley as a success, but it is, in truth, a graveyard. Failure is Silicon Valley’s greatest strength. Every failed product or enterprise is a lesson stored in the collective memory. We don’t stigmatize failure; we admire it. Venture capitalists like to see a little failure in the resumes of entrepreneurs.” Silicon Valley is known as a center of significant success, but also significant failure; the one goes with the other.

In order to develop the concept of the benefits of failure, Penn State University instituted a course for engineering students – Failure 101. The students have to experiment, which inherently involve taking risks. But in this course, the students do not pass over their errors – the errors and mistakes are opportunities to learn, create and innovate. The more failures the students make, the sooner they can get an A grade!

Many great successes started out as failures. Explorer Christopher Columbus failed when he set out to find a new route to India – he found America instead. Champagne was invented by a monk (named Dom Perignon) when a bottle of wine accidentally had a secondary fermentation. 3M invented glue that was considered a failure – it did not stick. But the glue’s failure to adhere became the basis for the Post-it note, which proved a phenomenon.

Failing to Succeed Tips

There are five things that companies must know – and effectively communicate to their employees – to create an atmosphere in which failure is not only respected, but encouraged:

  1. Distinguish between the two kinds of failure:
    • Honorable failure: an honest attempt at something new or different has been tried unsuccessfully and
    • Incompetent failure: people fail for lack of effort or competence in standard operations.
  2. Recognize – and communicate – that when you give people freedom to succeed, you also must give them freedom to fail.
  3. Do not criticize honorable failures.
  4. Have employees admit to, or even boast, about failures they have had where they tried something innovative that did not succeed. Make these into learning experiences.
  5. In a culture that is very risk averse and keen to apportion blame tackle the issue head on by rewarding honorable failures. Publicly praise and reward those who have had them.


Even if an individual failure does not lead directly to a success it should be seen as a step to success. Inventor Thomas Edison’s attitude to “failure” is salutary. When asked why so many of his experiments failed he explained that they were not failures. With each “failed” experiment, Edison discovered a method that did not work.

The innovative leader encourages a culture of experimentation. An innovative company must teach its employees that each failure is a step along the road to success. To be truly agile and successful in the long-term, a company must give people the freedom to innovate, the freedom to experiment and the freedom to succeed. That means you also must give employees the freedom to fail.

Editor’s Note: You might also enjoy this post – Don’t Fail Fast – Learn Fast

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Paul SloanePaul Sloane writes, speaks and leads workshops on creativity, innovation and leadership. He is the author of The Innovative Leader published by Kogan-Page.

Paul Sloane




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  1. Glyn Lumley on May 10, 2010 at 1:45 am

    Great piece Paul.

    I’ve found using Deming’s Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle a brilliant way of encouraging ‘successful failure’ or controlled risk-taking, if you prefer to look at things from that viewpoint. You might like to read my post ‘Is yours a forgiving workplace?’



  2. David M. Kasprzak on May 10, 2010 at 10:51 am

    This is a great article. The fear of failure needs to be driven out. Far, far too many initiatives are never started because of a perception of failure, or of not being able to see the solution immediately. While this may prevent embarassment in the short run, it also prevents learning that enables tremendous success in the long run. Failure needs to be embraced, not avoided, in order for growth & innovation to occur.

    Again, a great piece. Thanks!

    I have a recurring piece on my own blog that I call “elephant Biting.” It encourages people to take on seemingly big tasks a little at a time. Fee free to check it out!

  3. Nello Spiteri on May 11, 2010 at 9:50 am

    Brilliant!! How else would one – or a culture – learn? How do toddlers learn to avoid certain things but embrace others? Also by experimenting and being adaptable a company can evolve and move forward. Companies who are highly risk-averse and not willing to learn from failure do run the risk of becoming dinosaurs; and we all know what happened to them. These companies live in their own “comfort” zone, are highly habitual and predictable (in performance) and generally have a very myopic strategy in place.

  4. Shamina on May 13, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    The article was thought provoking. I especially like the distinction between the two different types of failure. I agree when people make honorable failures it really broadens their chances of gaining more wisdom. It motivates you to continue to strive and endure until a desired result/outcome.

  5. Margaret Reynolds on May 13, 2010 at 4:12 pm

    Great point. Failure can prompt success when we learn from it. Challenge 1 is to learn from it. Challenge 2 is to channel it. As limiting as it may sound, creativity is most successful when completed within boundaries of a vision or strategy.

  6. Mike Farrell on May 13, 2010 at 4:56 pm

    Great post. However, your illustration bothers me. The Grenadier Guard collapsed on parade is not so much an illustration of failure, but of success — discipline, conditioning, loyalty and so on. Having stood in formations for hours and having led them for hours, you prefer to have a soldier collapse in ranks as oppose to walk away. Standing fast in adversity is the behavior you are trying to reinforce. If it was easy, everyone would stand around in a red wool jacket and a bearskin hat carrying a rifle…

  7. Jim Estill on June 9, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    I completely agree that having a failure does not make you a failure. One of my most favorite expressions to encourage innovation is “fail often, fail fast, fail cheap”

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