Many organizations in both the public and private sectors suffer from a corporate culture which is risk averse and fearful of failure. People are reluctant to try new things or even to suggest innovations. They remember old stories about colleagues being punished for experiments that failed. They have learnt that it is safest to keep a low profile and focus on standard operating procedures. Mean while the executive committee is desperately trying to think of ways to make the outfit more agile and innovative.

Changing a culture is a tough challenge but one dramatic action that the leaders can take is to brag about their failures. The CEO might talk about how she took a risk early in her career, how it failed and how she learnt a valuable lesson. She might go further and praise an individual in the company for trying something bold that did not succeed. ‘John’s initiative did not work out but we have a learnt a lot from it and it is just the kind of initiative that we need.’ People will get the message that it is OK to try new things and that failure in an honorable endeavor will not automatically lead to blame and retribution.

Leading innovators do this and more – they brag about their failures. The renowned Italian design company Alessi has a display cabinet in its development department. The cabinet contains examples of Alessi’s greatest failures, the products that were launched with a great fanfare and then flopped. The cabinet silently sends some powerful messages. We should not get complacent. Success is not guaranteed. Some failures are to be expected if we are going to produce radical new products.

The innovative leader follows this mantra; We celebrate success. We learn from failure. We punish inaction.

Bessemer Venture Partners is one the USA’s oldest and most successful venture capital funds. Its website boasts of the many successful investments it has made in start-ups that went on to stardom. But also on their site is a fascinating page entitled Anti-Portfolio. The Anti-Portfolio is a listing of the all the great opportunities that Bessemer missed. The list includes Apple, Google, eBay, Intel, Fedex, HP, Intuit and Cisco. The comments on why the rejection decisions were made at the time make absorbing reading. It shows great confidence and humility for a successful company to admit to that list of misses.

Every innovative company has a similar list of flops hidden in its history. Nearly all successful executives have made some bad decisions and suffered reverses in their ascent of the corporate ladder. If we can publicise more of these failures we can let people know that failure is allowable. More than that, it is a necessary consequence of taking bold decisions. If we want to launch radical innovations then we have to accept that some of them will fail. The innovative leader follows this mantra, ‘We celebrate success. We learn from failure. We punish inaction.’

By Paul Sloane

About the author

Paul Sloane speaks on lateral thinking, innovation and leadership. He is the author of 20 books including The Innovative Leader and the Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills.

Photo: Thumb up sign drawn with chalk on a blackboard from