Why Failure Has No Place In Innovation

No one likes to fail. It’s bred into us at early ages and stays with us forever. Failing is bad, success is good…period.  It’s a notion that is so deep, asking innovators to unlearn it and turn it into something that should be celebrated is essentially impossible. Besides, is it really failure that we’re after? I don’t think so.

In innovation, we’ve been taught to believe Failing = Success.

In reality however, Not Failing = Success.

Consider this example: When one is learning to ski, falling down happens until enough skill is gained to ski without falling. Within the school of innovation, falling down is explained as failures that need to happened in order to reach success.  Falling, however, is not necessary failure, it’s refinement (establishing muscle memory through repetition). Refinement is what leads to becoming an accomplished skier – like building blocks.  That accomplishment defines success, and failure didn’t lead to it, learning did.

Innovation is about learning, not failing.

So if falling down isn’t failure, what is failure in this example?

Failure would be spending the same amount of time trying and not being able to ski without falling less…time for a new hobby.


Failure comes at a cost.  Learning pays dividends.

Obstacles to Removing “Failure” From Our Vocabulary (and our thinking!)

  1. Failing is just easier: Learning suggests there is more effort involved than failing.  If we fail, we can shrug our shoulders and try something else. Learning requires we dive into the reasons that caused the unexpected outcomes we experienced.  Learning is the only method of refinement.
  2. Leaders are less threatened by failing: When leaders say, “Yep, we fail fast and fail cheap around here.”, it makes them sound like they are wisely stewarding the organizations resources. In reality, they are dodging the accountability that is associated with real learning.
  3. There is less accountability with failure: To prove it, ask your innovation leaders for an example of failing fast.  They will be happy to share a story as if it were a badge of honor. However, ask them what they have learned recently and how those lessons are being applied to what they are currently pushing through the innovation process and your likely get a less positive reaction.
  4. Failing IS faster: It feels faster anyway. Just keep shooting at the target and eventually you’ll hit it.  Readers of quarterly reports love innovation target practice.  As long as the gun barrel stays hot from one quarter to the next, they will believe progress is happening.  When the investment community becomes curious about what the spray of bullets costs, they will care less about rate of activity and more about the aim.

IN THE END, it’s going to take a grassroots effort from us to make the shift from failure to learning. It’s going to take influencing academia to move away from teaching a flawed definition of failure within the innovation process and migrate toward teaching “learning”. It’s going to take a more disciplined application of our learnings as we refine ideas and assumptions, and not simply doing more “failing”.


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