MANY EXPERTS OFFER this
advice to organizations that
want to encourage greater
innovation: Create cultures
where employees are not
afraid to fail. But is creating
a failure-tolerant culture
enough to spur innovation?
Maybe not, say the authors
of a recent study. They argue
that truly innovative organizations don’t just normalize failures;
they also make time to discuss and learn from them.
“Even though tolerance for failure has been touted as beneficial
for innovation by academics and journalists alike, surprisingly there
has been no systematic empirical study to support this belief,” write
Erwin Danneels, associate professor of management at the Muma
College of Business at the University of South Florida in Tampa, and
Alex Vestal, assistant professor of management at the Cameron
School of Business at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington.
By normalizing failure, organizations might spur greater experimentation
among employees. But such experimentation might
result in only superficial or even “stupid” failures, Danneels and
Vestal argue. True and continuous innovation occurs only when
employees analyze, discuss, and learn from failures.
But if not structured carefully, discussions of failure can cause
employees to feel guilt or embarrassment—or even sow conflict.
“Because analyzing failure involves expressing controversial and
challenging opinions, people are generally reluctant to discuss failures
or do so only in superficial ways,” the co-authors write. That’s
why the most innovative organizations promote only constructive,
respectful discourse in the analysis of past failures.
“Examining the mechanisms by which organizations draw
the right lessons from failure to enhance innovation is crucial,”
Danneels and Vestal write. “Organization members need to make
explicit efforts to learn from failure, and do so in a climate where
people feel safe to talk about the tough issues.”
Read “Normalizing vs. Analyzing: Drawing the Lessons from Failure to Enhance Firm Innovativeness.”