Sunday MBA

Encouraging failure can lead to innovation

Sunday MBA provides ideas on running better businesses and succeeding in the modern workplace, this week from MIT Sloan Management Review.

Talking about and even celebrating failure has become central to the folklore about entrepreneurs. Does your business encourage experiments and “failing fast” as a source of innovation and quick learning?

That’s one of the six questions posed by Paul J.H. Schoemaker and Steven Krupp in their article “The Power of Asking Pivotal Questions .”

Schoemaker and Krupp write that asking “what if” questions challenges executives to incorporate broader perspectives, stimulating “out-of-the-box dialogues that help leaders make better choices and find innovative solutions sooner.”


As an example, they cite the workplace experiments of David Ogilvy, a prominent US advertising executive in the 1950s and ’60s.

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Ogilvy purposely ran ads that he and his team did not believe would work as a way to test their own theories about advertising. One of the experiments they tried was the famous Hathaway shirt advertisement featuring a man with an eye patch.

This version of the ad was an impromptu experiment whose success took Ogilvy by surprise.

The challenge is that learning from mistakes has much to do with a leader’s mind-set and the questions that he or she asks before and after an unexpected event occurs. Schoemaker and Krupp also make these observations:

Strategic decision makers should abandon the pursuit of perfection. That allows room for well-intentioned mistakes. The best teams try to fail fast, often, and cheaply in search of innovation.


Embracing failure will challenge most cultures. Few leaders are willing to give more than lip service to failure; most corporate cultures view missteps as crippling rather than as sources of innovation. Only in Silicon Valley, perhaps, do people wear their failures with pride. The “blame” culture that permeates most organizations paralyzes decision makers so much that they don’t take chances and they sweep missteps under the rug.

Leaders should shine a light on mistakes as sources of new learning. Leaders must frame mistakes as valuable learning opportunities; respond to failure as temporary, isolated, and not personal; emphasize that learning from a decision is a goal in itself. Decision makers should publicize stories about failed projects that led to innovative solutions.