Innovation and Failure: 6 Culture Ingredients for the Modern Workplace

innovation at work

Innovation and Failure: The Healthy Combination No One Wants

Our society hates risk.

Probably because we hate failure even more.

As a result, our love affair with safety is big business: We aim to eliminate hazard of any kind from American life.  A generation ago, we lived in a dangerous world:  Infant car seats were blankets in the backseat.  Killer  bio-chemicals lurked in every can and bottle.  Grade school children walked to and from school without an adult — imagine!  People even smoked during pregnancy, for heaven’s sake!

Seems like we’ve spent the better part of five decades attempting to eradicate risk and uncertainty in every part of our society.  And there’s a lot of good news: Most of us experience a longer, higher quality of  life as a result.

The downside?  The relentless pursuit of eliminating risk and maximizing profit endangers the fundamental health of business.  Creativity and  innovation is the lifeblood of all growth.  Put it on a diet (ie, misguided cultural approaches to Lean and programs solely seeking to eliminate cost) and plan on a backlash. (In the diet industry, 90% of people gain back all lost weight.)

Why do we avoid what makes us healthy? This happens when we have not addressed the core mindset behind the behavior. Fear of failure is born out of a short-term fear, that tolerating mistakes (or even more radical, celebrating them!) will slow us down and cost too much. So how much does failure actually cost a business?  More importantly, where do failures lead us?

Some important lessons from history hint at the answer: Fail faster and iterate.

1.       New Coke, Coca-Cola (1985) was a change consumers never asked for. The public backlash was a disaster. When the company went back to the original formula, Peter Jennings broke into daytime TV hit show “General Hospital” to announce the news.  US Senator David Pryor called it “a meaningful moment in US history” on the floor of the Senate. Cost: $4 million for taste-testing rollout.

Fast-Forward:  Coca Cola Freestyle offers 8 flavors of the original Coke in “Have It My Way” beverage dispensing, currently gaining popularity at fast food restaurants and movie theaters.

innovation at work

2.       The Edsel, Ford (1957).  Renowned as one of Ford’s greatest flops, this ride had it all: weird body styling, unreliable controls (including a push-button ignition), and an ambitious run-up of ads that may have inflated customer expectations. Cost of flop: Est. $250 Million.

Fast-Forward:  PT Cruiser Convertible.  To extend the fad of the original retro model, Chrysler created a four-passenger convertible version. The worst part about the convertible model was the support bar across the car that destroyed the coolest part of the car’s retro feel and made it look ridiculous. Each car had to be shipped out to a supplier company to have the top cut off and the new convertible top installed. Sometimes dumb, stays dumb.

innovation at work

3.       Gerber Singles (1974) – Gerber decided to release baby-food versions of adult foods with flavors including Beef Burgundy and Mediterranean Vegetables. This might have been too much convenience however! Adult consumers voted “No” to the idea of convenience in the form of scooping unsavory mush into their faces from a baby food jar.


Fast-Forward: Jamba Juice.  Today, it’s super-hip to grind up your food and sip it for lunch. No spoons or bibs please! (If you prefer you can down your puree at a raw food restaurant, where nothing is served over 118 degrees.)

4.   Astro Pants, Lululemon (2013)

Yoga pants are supposed to be form-fitting but Lululemon made a few versions that became translucent when wearers bent over. Inflammatory remarks about it from founder Chip Wilson made for a public relations fiasco. Wilson later issued an apology and the company issued a recall.


Fast-Forward: The  Naked Dress.  Debuted by Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez, Kim Kardashian on the Red Carpet at the Met Gala, March 2016.  Strategic lace ensures the “essentials” are covered but not much else.

innovation at work

Failure is inevitable

Much as we avoid it, failure is inevitable if you are innovating. Most failures are not about the idea. They miss one essential ingredient: Does the customer WANT this?  Your customer may be internal (employees) or external (users, partners.) but in either case, road-testing is a key ingredient to hitting a home run. BEFORE we go to market, have we tested this with people who will actually use it (and their stakeholders), and incorporated their feedback?

The real question is not “how can we learn to tolerate failure.” The real question is:  “How does a Millennial-Hungry marketplace ensure the red-headed step-beauty of innovation named Failure, is an A-list attendee in the modern workplace?”

Companies with exceptional cultures get it.  They work diligently to eliminate their BIGGEST RISK: The relentless mindset that seeks to eliminate risk from the world.

It may not be proven yet, but evidence is growing that the greatest innovation of our time is not a new product or service, but a new mindset: Failure is good.

Learning to be wrong in the right ways

Ask 10 or 100 employees in your organization:  How safe it is to speak up?  How effective are your meetings at driving creative thought and action?  How well do leaders communicate priorities in a way that stimulates excitement about creating something new? Are mistakes in your company a career limiting move or a welcome learning experience?   What happens when someone fails badly?  What happens when someone floats a dumb idea?

Innovation and failure is a recipe the modern world needs. Assuming you bake in the right ingredients that produce smart risk, you can pass off your broccoli (failure) to ensure people are energized and inspired to bring the creativity you need at work.

Six Culture Ingredients for Innovation and Failure in the Modern Workplace

  1. Name it in your core values. “Learn.” “Intelligent failure.” “Creativity counts.”
  2. Ensure leaders are promoted and rewarded for experimentation and results
  3. Allow employees to experiment. FedEx Days at Atlassian. 20% rule at Google.  Pitch Days at Anthem’s new Innovation Studio (designed to innovate the healthcare experience.)
  4. Clear guardrails and boundaries are essential: What is the real goal of innovation? What are the limits of experimentation?
  5. Publish examples of company creativity in your newsletter or blog. Google gave the Founders’ Award to the creators of Google Plus, one of their biggest public failures.
  6. Track the ratio of “intelligent failures” to “wild successes” so people can see how experimentation ultimately produces big wins.

Want greatness from your people?

Take a risk and make it good to be wrong.







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