The Role of Failure in Innovation

The bad news about the pursuit of innovation is the inevitability of failure. Instead of shying away from risk and loss, however, today’s innovative companies are embracing it as a non-negotiable to success.

As part of the Pierpont Endowment with the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin, Associate Professor Brad Love and Assistant Professor Jeffrey Treem have interviewed more than 60 innovation leaders on defining expertise in innovation. I recently sat down with Love to dive deeper into the unique way that innovative companies are approaching failure in their work.

“While the balance of risk vs. revenue is always present, innovative companies accept the fact that doing something that’s never been done before requires going somewhere you’ve never gone,” Love explained. “That means potential failure.”

Love said that the leaders he interviewed described actively leaning into failure by consciously instilling a company culture that prioritizes curiosity, openness and empathy (qualities that have been proven to spur innovative ideas – but more on that later this month). Others went further, actively applauding or even rewarding failure among internal teams as a sign that the organization was striving in the right direction. 

“If you never fail, then you haven’t done anything.” – Seth Godin

But how does one determine what’s a “useful failure” and what’s just…plain old failure? Among the interviewees, the general consensus was that if the failed project moved the needle, then it was a good failure.

But what defines a move of the needle? The following framework for defining useful failure emerged from the research:

Did it Influence Others?

Did the project positively influence someone’s mindset or emotional wellbeing? Did the employees who worked on the project come away feeling empowered? Did it engender curiosity or teach us how to put ourselves in other people’s shoes?

“For an employee who might feel unempowered or unmotivated by her work, being given the authority to pursue an innovative project or idea can breathe fresh life into that employee’s work and how she thinks about her job,” added Love.

Did it Foster Connection?

Did the project build bridges – whether communicational, organizational or emotional – that didn’t exist before? Did we rethink the way we frame our business unit, and how it interacts with others? Did we learn to better communicate – and thereby help others better understand – our work and goals?

Did it Develop Our People?

This was by far the biggest value-add of failure described by interviewees. Did my team members learn something new? Did they expand their skillset, or learn to use a new tool? In fact, some of the experts interviewed weighed whether or not they pursued an innovation project on what skill sets and knowledge their employees would gain as a result.

“Regardless of the outcome of the project itself, enriching your people pays dividends,” added Love.

Next week, we’ll dive deeper into the role of failure in innovation, and uncover strategies for balancing the pursuit of innovative projects with the need to produce revenue. Stay tuned to our Sparking Innovation page to learn more.

Danielle Hammett is a Content Strategist at Pierpont specializing in developing integrated public relations and marketing campaigns. She supports a diverse portfolio of clients in real estate, energy & industrial, infrastructure and more.