Is there anything to know about failure beyond not punishing those who fail?

July 2001 Quick Tip

Every manager, especially those leading product innovation, knows that punishing those who fail will discourage taking further innovative steps, whereupon innovation will wither. Clearly, some of us are better than others at applying this theory.

Yet, even if you respond to failure excellently, you are merely tolerating failure, not exploiting it. The key to exploiting failure is to recognize that product innovation is simply a sequence of steps for learning how to satisfy the customer. Often, we can learn more and learn it faster from a well-executed failure than from a success.

Say that you are testing a wing structure for an airplane you are developing. It can take years to determine that a wing is strong enough, but you can make it fail quickly. From this learning about the wing’s failure points and modes, you can move forward much faster.

Consequently, an innovation strategy that judiciously balances success and failure is more effective than one aimed solely at success. To operate in this way, consider three things:

  • Think carefully about the sequence of trials that will help you learn most efficiently. Depending on the trial’s nature, some should be biased toward failure, some toward success.
  • Communicate to all your plan and why some trials are likely to be failures. Otherwise, they will regard your failures negatively.
  • Question the popular mindset of doing it right the first time.

To pursue this topic, see our PDBPR column “Cherishing Failure.”

(c) Copyright 2013 Preston G. Smith. All Rights Reserved.