Failure in the Workplace – Why It’s Good for Innovation

By Frank Kenna

Should we strive for perfection in the workplace?  Doesn’t the quest for excellence result in better productivity, products and profits?  Not necessarily, according to an article in the Sept. 27, 2011, issue of The Wall Street Journal.  It examines companies that actually reward failure, on the theory that recognition is a path to creativity and innovation.  Some companies even give out cash awards and trophies as part of their workplace communication process.

“The most successful people tend to be those with the most failures,” said Dean Keith Simonton, a psychology professor at the University of California who has authored 12 books on creativity and innovation.

And many of us have heard the oft-repeated story of how Thomas Edison tested, and failed with, thousands of experimental filaments before he found one that worked and subsequently invented the light bulb.

So it’s worth thinking about: how do we react when employees at our company fail?  Do we berate or make fun of them?  Do we tolerate them?  Or do we celebrate their failure and encourage others to do the same?  That last option sounds counterintuitive, but as Judy Estrin of Menlo Park, Calif., an author of a book on innovation says,  “Failure, and how companies deal with failure, is a very big part of innovation.” 

Jude Carter
September 27, 2011

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