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Columbia Business Monthly

Become A Fan Of Productive Failure

Nov 01, 2017 02:11PM ● By Emily Stevenson
By Dr. Robert E. Ployhart

In the early 1950s, a small company in San Diego was trying to develop chemical products for the fledgling post-war aeronautics industry. Rocket Chemical had three employees and a vision to become an innovator of cleaning and degreasing chemicals. One of their products was intended to protect metal from rust and corrosion. They failed repeatedly to develop such a chemical. In fact, they failed 39 times, before a solution was ultimately successful. This solution became known as Water Displacement-40 (the “40” recognizes that the 40th attempt was the one that worked), and it was so successful that the company changed names to WD-40 Company, Inc. At one point, four out of five American homes had the product known today as WD-40.

WD-40 is just one of hundreds of examples of American innovation. While we all like to focus on the success of these innovative companies, we need to remember that most of their efforts were failures. The Rocket Chemical staff failed 39 times. Thomas Edison supposedly failed around 1,000 times before making a working lightbulb. The consistent pattern of repeated failure is found in most breakthrough inventions and scientific discoveries. And yet the failure is productive when those involved learn from the failure, make revisions, and try again. Failure is productive when it leads to learning, and sometimes knowing what does not work is as important as knowing what does work. Productive failure is necessary in the process of discovery.

Of course, not all failure is productive failure. Failure that comes from lack of attention, incompetence, or poor planning is costly and should be avoided. Receiving a failing grade because one didn’t study is a failure that is deserved. A product that fails due to a lack of market research is a regrettable failure. Failing at some activity and not learning from the experience is a wasted opportunity. These types of failures should obviously be avoided because they are unproductive.

The problem is that we often do not recognize or appreciate the difference between productive failure and unproductive failure. Productive failure should be encouraged, embraced, and even rewarded—when it contributes to learning and future innovation. This is easier said than done, and the challenge is to understand how to create and cultivate productive failure. For every business giant who failed at college or work before making it big (e.g., Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Cuban, Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg; the list goes on), there are thousands of others we have never heard of. How can a firm increase the chances of creating star employees or breakthrough innovations through productive failure?

Fortunately, with the benefit of hindsight, we can review the history of productive failures and identify some common themes. Organizations can stimulate innovation, creativity, and talent development by providing the structures that support productive failure:

Develop a climate of trust, respect, and empathy. The reason we turn immediately to our family and friends after a major failure is because they provide empathy and support. The same type of support must be instilled within an organization. Trust that the person did the right thing and respect for the person’s competence are critical for stimulating productive failure.

Be critical of ideas but not the people proposing the ideas. There is no greater deterrent to innovation than fear of being publicly criticized. Breakthrough ideas can come from anywhere and anyone, so why discourage them from being shared? No idea can change the world if it is not first shared with others.

Help those who fail learn from the experience. Failure happens to all of us; it’s only wasted if you do not learn from the opportunity. Help those who fail learn from the experience. For example, use mentors or coaches to work with those who fail to make the experience part of the employee’s development. Mentors and coaches can help translate a failure experience into an insight for learning.

Provide young talent a safe opportunity to fail. Many successful people attribute their later success to early failures. If we want to cultivate great leaders, we need to give them opportunities to fail as they hone their skills. Young people need projects and opportunities to potentially fail and learn from the opportunity without negative career repercussions.

Clarify what is productive and unproductive failure. Performance management practices (e.g., performance appraisal) need to explicitly recognize the characteristics of productive and unproductive failures. This distinction needs to be clear and communicated throughout the organization.

J. K. Rowling was broke when she wrote the first Harry Potter book. Steven Spielberg was rejected from film school multiple times. Walt Disney failed at many jobs and was even fired for lacking creativity. Failure often stimulates success when the failure drives learning and innovation. Embracing productive failure is necessary and critical for enhancing the process breakthrough innovation.