iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Ron Ashkenas

GET UPDATES FROM Ron Ashkenas
 

When Failure Is a Good Option

Posted: 08/22/2012 10:54 am

You may remember the line uttered by Ed Harris in the movie Apollo 13: "We've never lost an American in space and we're sure as hell not gonna lose one on my watch! Failure is not an option."

Many managers use this same expression with their teams, and in most cases it's appropriate. Organizations are in business to win -- to serve customers better than the competition. And, of course, none of us wants to fail.

However, there are some occasions where failure is not only appropriate but absolutely necessary, most times to generate learning and improvement. It's important to recognize those situations and manage them intentionally and explicitly, rather than avoiding them. In fact, the most effective managers are those who not only welcome failure at the right times, but seek it out and leverage it.

For example, true organizational innovation is impossible without failure. At its heart, innovation is based on the scientific method: Develop a hypothesis, test it, and find out if it's valid. Doing this well requires repeated failures. But each one helps you cross out one more invalid hypothesis and gets you closer to figuring out what will really work, whether you are at an early stage of development or trying to determine the best way to commercialize and scale.

Therefore, the key to leveraging failure with innovation is to fail fast (and frugally), conducting rapid tests with low risk. For example, if you've ever tried to order a new product online and found that it was unavailable, it may have been a test to find out whether customers would actually buy the product, even before the product was produced. If no one expresses interest, then the company doesn't invest further, which saves time and money -- and frees up space for testing the next hypothesis.

Failure is also an essential player in performance improvement. One of the best ways to develop people is to push them beyond their comfort zones, to learn new content areas and practice new skills. With few exceptions, this type of learning inevitably comes with some amount of failure because it takes practice to learn -- whether it's music or management.

However, leveraging this type of failure requires managers to provide a safety net so that doing something wrong doesn't turn into a disaster for the company. For example, a CEO wanted some of his direct reports to learn how to work more effectively at the board level. To do so he began to give them the responsibility for crafting board presentations and facilitating board discussions -- but also gave them personal support and access to a consultant. Having this safety net allowed them to build competency without undue risk that their inexperience, and initially flawed attempts, would cause problems.

While it's easy to say that failure is not an option, the reality is that sometimes failure is not just an option but the preferred one. Effective managers leverage both innovation and performance failure to accelerate learning and create a stronger organization in the long term.

Cross-posted from Harvard Business Online.

 

Follow Ron Ashkenas on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SchafferResults

FOLLOW BUSINESS