Failing Upward: Encouraging Failure to Promote Creativity
"Failing is one of the greatest arts in the world. One fails toward success." ~ Charles Kettering
Thomas Edison created 1000 light bulbs that didn’t work. But that’s never how his story is told - In textbooks, he is called, “The inventor of the light bulb,” rather than “The man who failed 1000 times.” Edison himself considered those 1000 trials to be necessary steps in the successful invention of his final product. Failure is an inherent piece of the creative process, an expected piece of problem solving.
It follows, then, that to properly manage for creativity, you must allow (and perhaps encourage) failure. In a piece for the Harvard Business Review, Ed Catmull (2008) of Pixar stated, “To act in this [creative] fashion, we as executives have to resist our natural tendency to avoid or minimize failure… If you want to be original, you have to accept the uncertainty.”
So how do you do this? How do you encourage your employees to fail and to use these failures as the crucial steps of their progress?
It is important to note that individuals will not be willing to experiment in the workplace if they fear repercussion. Experimentation indicates the individual is solving a problem in a way that it has not been solved before - No one can be sure of what the outcome will be. This process is crucial to organizations that value creativity and innovation, but so many individuals find there is punishment if the fruits of their experiments are not desirable. Individuals, therefore, are dissuaded from engaging in the very process that organizations desire!
In his book Weird Ideas That Work: How to Build a Creative Company, Robert Sutton (2002) suggests that, in order to dispel this aversion to failure, organizations should simply stop punishing it. In fact, they should reward failure! Failure is a sign that your employees are trying. Punishment should come only when an employee stops exerting effort.
Specifically, Sutton suggests, employees should be rewarded for making novel mistakes. An employee who fails repeatedly in the same manner is not an active employee. Instead, employees’ failures should be, “Forgiven and remembered” in order that they may be reflected and built upon (Sutton, p. 97). Forgiveness from upper management is crucial, as it allows employees to maintain their self-esteem and encourages them to share the details of their failure with others (Bosk, 1979).
Employees should be encouraged to make as many unique mistakes as possible, rather than dedicating their resources to ensuring higher quality of fewer mistakes. Sutton notes that research on creative output indicates we cannot predict from the outset which ideas will be successful and which will fail, so the best metric for measuring a creative employee’s productivity is not the success of an employee’s ideas, but the sheer quantity of their production. Note that this does not mean employees whose ideas remain always in the hypothetical should be considered productive. Sutton refers to this as the “Smart talk trap,” a syndrome in which companies reward individuals for sounding smart rather than ensuring that smart things are done (Sutton, p. 99). Rather, employees should be rewarded for pursuing the practicality of their ideas, and potentially their production. This distinction should be determined within each organization or team, depending on the context.
The point here is to ensure you are giving your employees the resources and psychological safety to pursue the creative ideas you are expecting them to deliver. It is common for organizations to pay lip service to “Bold, new ideas” but punish for failure. These expectations are simply incompatible. Consider taking a step back and allowing your employees to fail a little more. You might be surprised at how much success they will find within their failures.
Bosk, C. (1979), Forgive and remember: Managing medical failure. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Catmull, E. (2008). How Pixar fosters collective creativity. Harvard Business Review, 86(9): 64-72.
Sutton, R. I. (2002). Weird ideas that work: How to build a creative company. New York: The Free Press.
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