Unlocking innovation and progress: how can organisations build a safe to fail culture?

Published by Lisa Zibamanzar on

abstract image of shattering lightbulb to represent innovation process

Unlocking innovation and progress: how can organisations build a safe to fail culture?

Examine the great inventions of history and it won’t be long before you come across some serious clangers. Before Steve Jobs invented the Apple Macintosh there was the Apple Lisa, released in 1983 at the eye-watering price of $9,995 per unit. The exorbitant retail price combined with a sluggish user experience, meant that the majority of Apple Lisas were left to rot on the tree, with only 10,000 units sold in total. Then there was the time that Colgate tried to diversify from toothpaste to frozen foods and were surprised to find out that people couldn’t get past the association of minty fresh breath sufficiently enough to pop down to their local supermarket and purchase a Colgate Beef Lasagne. The list goes on… Hoverboards (2015-2017 – recalled due to exploding batteries), New Coke (1985 – a Coke that’s sweeter than Coke anyone?), Allo, Google (2016-2018 – certainly no WhatsApp).

Getting to grips with failure.

 Normalising failure and embracing previous failings as learning points takes the stigma of it away, thus allowing teams to embrace initiatives and risk failure in the pursuit of innovation excellence.

It’s part of human nature to attribute blame, we see it in children in the playground, on the front pages of newspapers and in the corridors of power across the globe, but… in order for organisations to strive for innovation excellence focus needs to be taken away from pinning the badge of failure on any one person, or team, and onto taking ownership of it as a company. Failure needs to be embraced as a positive learning point, a springboard for future success. In short, organisations need to work on a company culture of psychological safety in which employees are praised for the positive learning they take from failure.

In this Harvard Business Review article by Amy C. Edmonson the author uses her Spectrum of Reasons for Failure to prove the importance of embracing exploratory testing in order to foster a company culture that supports failure, so that employees are motivated to achieve higher standards in their next attempt.

abstract image of shattering lightbulb to represent innovation process

How to foster innovation within large organisations.

 Great innovation doesn’t come from a place of fear and hierarchy. Unless employees feel nurtured and safe to speak up, creativity will be stymied and organisational growth with be stunted.

When Ernst and Young spoke to colleagues on their graduate schemes about their expectations of organisational culture, the greatest requirement was ‘a human-centred employee experience’ i.e. staff wanted to feel valued. Organisations that value their staff, embolden their staff, and therefore get the best from them.

So, it’s clear that creating a safe space in which to innovate is the most important step an organisation can take to create a confident workforce that has the freedom to innovate with impunity.

Rewarding vision.

Innovative spirit needs to be baked into the culture, strategy, and performance targets of an organisation so that everybody who works there is imbued with a sense of purpose and vision.

As the MIT Enterprise Forum puts it, employees who work in innovative environments ‘easily recognize that innovation culture is second nature to their company or simply part of its DNA.’ 

It’s no surprise that McKinsey’s ‘Eight essentials of innovation’ starts with Aspire. But it’s not enough to just have the ambition to innovate, if the company culture isn’t right the path to success is going to be bumpy.

 Culture club.

 Many employees will come from a background of survival of the fittest, where the loudest members of the team dominate whilst others fade into the background, but what’s the sense in hiring an intelligent and diverse pool of talent and only getting one point of view.

In order to make the most of your team’s collective insights it’s important to encourage a team mentality where everybody can speak up, regardless of whether they are an alpha personality or not. Encouraging a supportive and trusted circle of motivated individuals all striving for the same goal will lead to a company culture in which teams can get together and feel confident to communicate their ideas without ridicule. Nurturing this safe and positive environment can only lead to more innovative ideas, courageous experimentation, and improved opportunities.

abstract image of arrows and taget wooden blocks to represent steps to success

Steps to success.

So, now we know that innovation comes from a place of nurture and a company culture that chooses accolades over accusations, what are the practical steps that organisations and their management teams can take to facilitate a company culture that inspires its staff to reach for the stars.

  • Collaboration is key – no one person or team should be responsible for coming up with a definitive idea.
  • Back to the future – look at previous failings, acknowledge them, use them to improve.
  • Empower staff – leadership and management shouldn’t tell their workforce what to do but instead empower them to innovate upwards and make suggestions. Avoid a strict hierarchy that prevents employees having the freedom to speak up.
  • Optimise your office layout for innovation – consider whether your workspace encourages the free flow of ideas, look at where teams sit and whether the building design provides the relevant space for meetings, and recreation areas to create brain space for invention.
  • Put the necessary software in place – ensure tools and processes are in place to make it easier for employees to focus on innovation and not get bogged down in clunky systems.

What have we learnt?

 It’s clear that with each failure comes greater understanding. Learning points can be gleaned throughout the innovation process – what went wrong, what could be done better, how can we avoid a repeat performance. Without the Apple Lisa, Jobs wouldn’t have been able to progress to the Apple Macintosh, without New Coke the reintroduction of the original formula (subsequently rebranded Coca-Cola Classic) wouldn’t have been so successful, ultimately restimulating sales of the brand and winning in the fight against Pepsi. Most importantly, we’ve learnt that without a nurturing company culture where staff feel safe to fail, innovation is not an achievable ambition.

Here at BAD our behavioural scientists live for the chance to help organisations unlock innovation and potential, get in touch to see how we can tailor-make digital learning solutions that foster growth and innovative opportunities for your company.

Categories: Best Practice