Respect for Failure Encourages Innovation

Last Updated Dec 22, 2009 4:43 AM EST

In the three years since I left the corporate world and started my own consulting business, the biggest single lesson I've learned is the need to accept and embrace failure.

I don't mean failing at my everyday operations â€" my clients wouldn't pay for that and I wouldn't last too long â€" I mean being willing to fail when I develop and try something new.

To be honest, it's a lesson I'm still learning, but the demands of selling my services have shown me:

  • If I demand 100 per cent success then I'm very unlikely to do anything interesting or worthwhile.
  • if I put the pressure on myself to 'get it right first time, every time', I end up planning and planning, rather than taking action.

In fact, failure is at the heart of all progress. As Woody Allen once said, "If you're not failing every now and again, it's a sign you're not doing anything very innovative."

Yet many large corporations detest failure. In the minds of large company executives it's a word that brings to mind images of a P45 and a black bin bag of hastily collected office belongings. For many, the desire to protect current business overwhelms any wish to radically change their customer offer or business model.

Most breakthrough innovations are, instead, driven by new entrants and upstarts with nothing to lose. Ryanair and EasyJet, not BA or Lufthansa, for example, transformed the European airline market. Similarly, Google rather than Microsoft has transformed the way we use the web, and, going back 30 years, it was Microsoft that acted as the catalyst for the explosion in our use of PCs.

Becoming better at failing should be at the top of many senior executives' list of objectives for 2010. So how can they better take on the risk-seeking attitudes and approaches of start-ups?

Earlier this year I hosted and facilitated a roundtable discussion of strategy officers from some of the UK's leading companies. Our collective view was that the key for large companies to innovate better was for them to be willing and able to fail more quickly and cheaply than they currently do.

Instead of relying on detailed analysis and research, in a vain and futile attempt for the initial version to be perfect, it is faster and more effective to create and test a simple prototype for your idea. It shouldn't cost a lot of money â€"- in fact, the cheaper the better, usually -â€" and although it won't be perfect, it will help you quickly learn whether you have something of interest or a dog on your hands.

In other words, by starting to behave more like a cash-strapped new-start company, focusing on creating a series of straightforward but ever-improving prototypes rather than an ideal one-off solution, large companies can become faster, more agile and, ultimately, more innovative.

(Pic: tibchris cc2.0)
  • Stuart Cross

    Stuart Cross is a founder of Morgan Cross Consulting, which helps companies find new ways to drive substantial, profitable growth. His clients include Alliance Boots, Avon and PricewaterhouseCoopers.