The Innovation Formula: Risk Taking and Failure Is Critical to Building a Strong Culture


In Apollo 13, the 1995 movie about the ill-fated moon landing mission, NASA Flight Director Gene Krantz (played by Ed Harris), is talking to his team about the necessity of finding a way to preserve energy in the spacecraft.

Members of the team are telling him that there are only enough amps to power the ship for 16 hours. Krantz responds by telling the team that they have never lost an American in space and they are not going to lose one under his watch. "Failure is not an option," Harris memorably states. And while Krantz never actually said this line in real life, it stuck with him and became the title of his autobiography five years later.

The notion of failure being unacceptable is one I have found resonates with many organizations.

Failure as Part of Building a Culture

Failure is generally thought of as a dirty word, and something that gets swept under the carpet when it does rear its ugly head. But being able to acknowledge and learn from failure is a huge part of building a culture where risk-taking is tolerated, and it is a concept that Engineers Without Borders (EWB) is very familiar with.

EWB is a not-for-profit organization that supports social innovations that can help end global poverty and inequality. Its projects include the Run to End Poverty event, which is a fundraiser for various projects:

  • Rent to Own, which makes it possible for entrepreneurs in rural Zambia to own new equipment through making regular "rental" payments over a period of time; and,
  • Voto Mobile, which is a web-based platform that makes it easy to give citizens of Ghana a voice in policy creation and social change.

One of the particularly groundbreaking pursuits of EWB came about through internal conversations about how the organisation claimed to be humble yet didn’t talk about all the ideas and ventures that were failures. As a result of this contradiction, 2008 saw the birth of the first Failure Report. Just like EWB’s annual reports, the Failure Report is now published every year and is available for public download via the EWB website.

It’s a relatively lengthy publication that details all of the year’s failures. Each story published in the report talks about the intentions behind the project, what happened and (most importantly) the lessons learned. EWB’s first Failure Report was seen as groundbreaking within the development sector which, like many other sectors, had traditionally swept failure under the carpet.

Lessons Learned

The Failure Report was one of the sector’s first steps towards making failure OK. A couple of years later, in 2011, EWB took the idea a step further and created a website called Admitting Failure. Ashley Good, the leader behind the Admitting Failure venture and also the editor of the Failure Report, explains, "There was a reason no one in the sector was talking about their failures already: development work is largely donor-driven and donors tend to stop funding people and projects that fail." The purpose of the site is to encourage other development organisations to share what isn’t working so that others can learn from their mistakes.  

Several years on, the site is filled with stories. Marilyn McHarg, executive director of Médecins Sans Frontières, talks about the time she was supervising operations in Iraq and her team had arrived underprepared to treat the types of illnesses they were presented with. At the end of her story McHarg shares the learnings she took from the situation.

A volunteer called Kelly Anderson tells the story of trying to help an orphanage in Haiti by providing them with a $700 water filter. After Anderson left, the filter was locked away in a closet because the orphanage staff were afraid it would be stolen — and hence it was never used to provide clean water for the children. And then one day, it was stolen.

When I tell people who work in the for-profit sector about this idea of sharing failures, the first response I get is that it would never work in their industry. However, I am not sure this is the case. Certainly, in Silicon Valley people talk about failure as being a rite of passage.

FailCon, a conference that launched in San Francisco in 2009 and quickly went global, gathers thousands of technology entrepreneurs, start-up founders, investors and developers together to share their stories of failure. People from Google, Yammer, Uber and many other successful companies have all taken the stage at FailCon to talk about their mistakes and what they learnt from them.

Encouraging Employees to Fail

At advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy, failure is seen as a critical part of what they do. Founder Dan Wieden always says "Fail Harder," and in the Portland office (where the agency first started) there is a big board with those very words written on it. Neil Christie, head of Wieden+Kennedy’s London office says,

You can either have a culture where you say to people, “Whatever you do, don’t screw up”, or you can have a culture where you say, “We are going to push you to do things that you don’t know whether you can do and that we don’t know whether it’s possible to be done at all. If we aim high, we will achieve more than we would have done if we’d settled for average."

‘Fail Harder is intended to be an incentive to set the bar high and try and achieve as much as possible. If we set the bar really high, we will achieve more than we thought possible than if we settled for less. I think part of that comes from working with Nike, the founding client. Athletes constantly push themselves every time to do more than they thought they could do. It’s all about pushing and pushing and pushing and failing. And the creative process is a bit like that as well. There is no finish line. There is no right answer. It’s always about trying and trying and failing and trying again."

Failure is not only encouraged; it is also built into people’s performance appraisals. The agency has several questions they ask all staff at every performance review, one of which is about failure.

‘We ask everyone, “What was your bravest and best failure this year?”’ explains Christie. ‘We recognize that and encourage people to try things that sometimes they can’t do. If they’re never failing, then the suggestion is that they’re not trying hard enough."

Excerpted with permission of the publisher Wiley, from The Innovation Formula: The 14 Science-Based Keys for Creating a Culture Where Innovation Thrives by Amantha Imber. Copyright (c) Inventium Pty Ltd ATF Inventium Trust 2016. All rights reserved. This book is available at all booksellers.