Elon Musk's ability to turn failure into success gets a lot of press. This reputation is well-earned. And there's something special here for leaders who want successful teams. 

In 2006, SpaceX launched its maiden rocket. It failed in just 30 seconds. The rockets had rockets explode before even leaving the launchpad.

How many crashes--and lost dollars--should Musk and company tolerate? The answer isn't a number, it's a mission. SpaceX exists to "revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets." So, until we have mailboxes on Mars, it will probably keep launching.

While failure sucks, learning is worth more than never failing. Innovative teams don't focus on failure prevention. They focus on learning and continual improvement. This means conversations around failure should reflect that and foster intelligent risk-taking rather than fear.

How you handle failure at your company directly impacts your culture -- will it be innovative or insecure?

5 questions to ask after something blows up

So, what happened the last time something blew up at your company? How was the failure handled?  At my company, just like yours, failure happens all the time. We certainly don't revel in it or have some masochistic impulse toward it. But we do handle it in an intentional way.

When something goes south, we ask these five questions in a retrospective meeting:

  1. What happened?
  2. Why did this happen?
  3. What are we learning from this?
  4. How can we get this project back on track?
  5. How would we do it differently?

Before you cruise through those questions, notice what question is not on the list ... We never ask: "How do we prevent this from happening in the future?" 

You've probably heard that line too many times to count. After a failure, it's a fan favorite. But a posture bent on failure prevention is not one prepared for creativity, innovation, or world-changing results.

A mission of failure prevention is one way toxic bureaucracies grow. With every misstep, a new rule is enforced. Another layer of process is slapped in place to prevent failure. But what if failure isn't something to be avoided, but rather embraced?


The value of failure for creativity

Ed Catmull, current president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, is known for describing Pixar's films as "ugly babies" at the beginning of their lives. Some are even downright terrible. In his book, Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, Catmull explains:

"Having seen and enjoyed Pixar movies, many people assume that they popped into the world already striking, resonant, and meaningful--fully grown, if you will. In fact, getting them to that point involved months, if not years, of work. If you sat down and watched the early reels of any of our films, the ugliness would be painfully clear."

To date, Pixar movies have grossed nearly $5.5 billion. But even the most exceptional teams--and films--fail on their way to success. For instance, the animated triumph that is Toy Story wasn't a roaring success from the start. Catmull said the entire team who brought Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and Mr. Potato Head to life lived with the "ever-present, hair-raising knowledge that our survival depended on this 80-minute experiment."

Catmull and the Pixar crew put everything on the line to do something fresh, and rubbed shoulders with failure throughout the process. But they pivoted from a story where Woody was a jerky, creepy ventriloquist doll that almost got canceled outright, to one that grossed over $360 million at the box office.

So, a trendy obsession with failure isn't the point. Instead, it's about fostering a culture of doers, risk takers, and innovators. Not a culture of employees whose goal is non-failure.

The truth is, failure is requisite for innovation, because novel approaches and new technologies court failure as a necessary mate. So, the next time you or your team fails, don't rush to failure prevention. Rush to learn, make better decisions, and reinforce a culture that is willing to risk failing on the way to hitting your next home run.

Published on: Aug 30, 2018