Making Room for EPIC Failure

I’ve been a perfectionist since I was a little kid. As far back as I can remember, I always believed that failure was not an option. Nobody was harder or more critical of me than I was of myself. (Good news, I am in perfectionist recovery, I invite you to join me.)

When I was in middle school, I was particularly frustrated with an experiment I was doing in my science class that just wouldn’t work. After several attempts, I could not achieve the correct results. And no matter how many times I retraced my steps, I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. My teacher was a self-described hippie who was fond of quoting Robert F. Kennedy: “Only those who dare to fail greatly can achieve greatly.” He’d say it all the time, which would annoy me to no end because I wasn’t interested in platitudes about failure. I just wanted to get an A and move on to the next assignment.

Now that I’m deeply rooted in adulthood, I can appreciate the message my teacher was trying to imprint on me all those years ago. In the business world, most of us fear failure because, unlike my experiment, we may not be given a second or third chance to get it right. The pace and pressures of the modern workplace mean failure can have immediate and disastrous consequences. A great idea that needs tweaking could be put on the back burner indefinitely. An employee who fails risks being marginalized, passed over or, worst case scenario, terminated.

But I’m here to remind you that failure and innovation are twinsies. History is littered with examples of people and ideas that failed spectacularly before finding success. Thomas Edison attempted the light bulb thousands of times before he got it right. The man who opened Macy’s shuttered several stores before figuring out what brought customers to his door. We’ve all seen the grainy footage of the prototype planes that the Wright brothers couldn’t get off the ground.

Without question, success takes perseverance. But it also takes a workplace that’s willing to make room for failure. Employers must recognize that taking risks comes with the potential of reaping great rewards — if you’re willing to analyze the heck out of your mistakes and really learn from them. That seems to be the driving principle that motivates Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. He actually likes to hire people who have a track-record of failure, according to Business Insider. He hired former executives from Webvan, a failed online grocery delivery service, to launch Amazon’s grocery delivery. He had this to say about the gigantic, multi-million-dollar bust of the Fire Phone: “If you think that’s a big failure, we’re working on much bigger failures right now. And I am not kidding. And some of them are going to make the Fire Phone look like a tiny little blip.”

Innovation is an aromatic stew of creativity, imagination, support, hard work, repetition, sweat equity, failure and second chances. It doesn’t work without all the ingredients. That’s not to say that the process of innovation is open-ended. Even Bezos says there’s a point where you pull the plug on an idea that just isn’t working. But before that moment comes, ask yourself a few questions:

  1. Have I done all that I can? This is a question that both managers and team members should ponder. As a manager, have you provided as much financial, physical and moral support as possible? Maybe your employees need some time off their regular duties to focus on an innovative idea or project. Can you secure a few extra dollars for that software program or piece of equipment they need to further the work? Have you encouraged the progress and offered up possible solutions or work-arounds to obstacles? As a team member, have you truly committed your mental and physical energy to the project or idea and not engaged in some form of self-sabotage? Have you thoroughly researched the issue and reached out to others who have expertise? Have you tried different ways to make it work?
  2. Have I learned from my mistakes? Thomas Edison and R.H. Macy are great examples of people who learned and innovated from their failures and missteps. Macy is credited with revolutionizing the retail industry through practices that he instituted, including replacing bargaining with a fixed-pricing system, offering money-back guarantees and capitalizing on publicity. He was the first to use Santa Claus and holiday window displays during the Christmas season as a way to lure shoppers. When asked about his failures with the light bulb, Edison said, “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.” I’m no Edison, but I eventually figured out why my middle school science experiment wasn’t working and corrected my course of action.

    Credits: My Slice of the Apple

  3. Is it time to quit? Innovation isn’t always a case of keep trying. As the old Kenny Rogers song goes, you’ve got to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em. Your work at innovation should not be in a bubble. It needs to fall within the context of what’s going on around you. Are you trying to accomplish something that’s already been done better by someone else? Are you too late or too early to the market with your innovation? Does the cost-benefit ratio of your project render it useless? Just as it’s important for managers to establish an environment that fosters innovation, they also need to make hard decisions about drawing the line.

In many ways, I’m still that kid in middle school. I’m still a perfectionist (although recovering). I don’t like to lose and I certainly don’t like to fail. I’m betting that you don’t either. But if we’re going to innovate and grow and change, we have to get comfortable with failure. Even embrace it! The next time you or your team screws something up, stop pointing fingers at each other, take a deep breath, let the light bulb come on and figure out how to do it better the next time. Who knows, you could just come up with the next big thing.

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K. Melissa Kennedy

Chief Innovation Officer, Founder, Intrapreneur. Entrepreneur. Enthusiastic leader and speaker. Teller of truths at 48 Innovate
I spent many years working for and building successful companies. I parlayed that experience into a unique process for harnessing hidden assets inside organizations and turning them into big-idea-generating, $1-billion-revenue-producing resources. (Spoiler alert: it’s the people.) I'm an internationally acclaimed expert, happy to share the not-so-secrets that have led to impressive outcomes for Fortune 100 corporations, major educational institutions, start-up companies and entrepreneurs. Working with companies like Cisco, Lancope, Arby's, Capitol Broadcasting Company New Media - WRAL, PRSONAS, Cranfill Sumner & Hartzog, REVO Communications, Erno Group, Focus Carolina, Madan Global, UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, INZONE Brands, Albright Digital, Spring Metrics and NC State Kenan Fellows.

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