The other day I was watching my daughter try the monkey bars for the first time. She would jump up, grab the first bar while reaching for the second bar and fall. She continued this pattern with slightly different tweaks until she made it past one bar. Each time she fell, she didn't give up. She got up and tried something different each time until she got it right. It made me wonder, why is it so hard for adults to try and fail, when it comes so naturally to children?
When you think about it, accepting failure shouldn't be so hard. After all, our entire human existence is based on failing. We fell many times before learning to crawl then turned right around and starting falling all over again before figuring out how to walk. It's how we evolve as humans. Yet early on in life, whether through our education system or our culture, we're taught failure isn't good enough -- that we always have to win and failing is wrong. We're rewarded only for 'A' grades and following the rules.
But fear of failure isn't going to sustain us anymore. We live in an era of constant innovation. Businesses can no longer wait for the dust to settle, for pauses in innovation cycles, to craft and market test strategies and products. They need to be constantly in the mix, trying - and failing -- in the moment.
The trick is learning to tap back into that willingness to fail that we were born with, and the great lessons that come with it.
Here are four ways companies can encourage employees to fail fast then succeed:
1. Reset the table
What's the true sign of a successful entrepreneur? I hope you've guessed the answer by now: failure. On average, entrepreneurs fail 3.8 times before they finally make it in business. It took three tries before Henry Ford became a success with the Ford Motor Company. James Dyson designed 5,126 bagless vacuums that didn't work before building one that did.
The common thread among successful entrepreneurs seems to be that they redefine failure. They focus on what they can learn from their mistakes, and the skills they acquire along the way, rather than on their inability to succeed immediately or all the time.
And the same approach that works for a startup can also lead to success in other areas of business. For example, Warren Buffet prefers to think about investing much like baseball. If you're trying to bat 1,000 all the time, you will never be successful in anything you do. Instead, Berkshire Hathaway strives to bat .400, recognizing the fact that more than half the time they're going to strike out. But rather than swinging at everything in the market, Buffet argues the trick is to wait for the pitch that's in your sweet spot - an area where you have an edge or a skill.
2. Share, share and share again
If employees are going to going to embrace risk, managers have to lead the way. They need to be the first to share stories about their own failures and what they learned from them. There's a reason everyone knows that Oprah Winfrey was demoted from her job as an evening news reporter in Baltimore because she was "unfit for television news"; and that J.K. Rowling considered herself a failure after getting 12 rejections for Harry Potter before signing a £1,500 advance with Bloomsbury publishing. These stories are common knowledge because both of these wildly successful women have made a point of sharing what they learned from failure.
3. Celebrate and Reward "fail" and learn efforts
Talking only goes so far, putting programs in place that recognize and celebrate the value of failure is just as crucial. Some companies, for instance, dole out awards to teams or individuals who had a great or innovative idea that didn't work out. Like when Grey Advertising was concerned its fast growth would inhibit creativity and implemented a quarterly "Heroic Failure" award that recognizes risky, edgy or new and totally unproven ideas. Another example is when Jim Donald took over as CEO of the Extended Stay America hotel chain and gave each of his 9,000 employees a Monopoly Get out of Jail Free card to encourage them to take big risks without any penalty. When something doesn't work out the employee simply hands in their card.
4. Make it real
The biggest myth about innovation is that it all starts with a bolt of lightening -- a sudden impulse that provides the perfect idea. With that kind of expectation, it's no wonder most people don't think they have what it takes to be creative or risk takers. The reality is that game-changing creativity -- the iPhone, Google search, Dyson's vacuum -- starts with an everyday problem. For the iPhone, the question was why aren't we using the fingers we're born with, instead of a stylus or keyboard, to operate a smartphone?
As Reed Hastings tells it, the inspiration for Netflix was a $40 late fee he owed Blockbuster. That got him thinking about how he could create a movie-rental business by mail with unlimited due dates and no late fees. Yet, Netflix's first iteration, single DVD rentals, wasn't very popular because it was still too much like Blockbuster. It wasn't until Netflix decided to try a more radical subscription model that the service began to take off, creating the foundation for its video-on-demand services.
Just like when we were young, evolution and innovation happens in the space between failures. Often, the solution to the problem may look very different from the one you started out with. That's okay. The important thing is the journey. During that journey you will fail, you will learn and from those learnings you will move forward successfully. Being innovative doesn't come down to having some rare gift. It's learned through persistence and trial and error. So if you want your team to be more innovative....encourage them to fail.