Innovation : Learning From Failure.

Space shuttle symbolising how we can learn from failure to build innovation capability.

Most of us at some stage have been encouraged to ‘reframe’ failure as learning or feedback. But to what extent do individuals, teams and organisations actually do this?

Now, new research from the University of Colorado Denver Business School confirms that we can grow our ability to innovate through learning from our failures.

In particular, the research study has shown that organisations learn more from failures than from successes.

The researchers examined companies that launch satellites, rockets and shuttles into space – an area where failures are ’high profile and hard to conceal.’

In one part of the study they compared the flights of the space shuttle Atlantis and Columbia.

(Note, in the linked article below the Columbia is confused with the Challenger  - which was destroyed in 1986)

The research found that on the Atlantis flight of 2002, a small piece of insulation broke off. However, this did not greatly impact the flight, and the mission was considered a success.

However, on the Columbia flight 2003, a piece of insulation broke off once again, the shuttle was destroyed and the mission was considered a failure.

Because the Atlantis was considered a success there was little follow up or investigation of the insulation problem. By contrast the Columbia mission was considered a ‘failure’. The mission was thoroughly investigated and 29 major recommendations were made to prevent future calamities.

How good is your organisation at learning from failure?

Often the opportunity to learn from failure in organisations is not taken because the culture encourages everyone to be seen to be ‘competent’ at all times; to know the answers and to be in control of their projects and responsibilities.

This may cause some companies to ‘hide the evidence’ of failure. Perhaps by replacing staff in the department where the ‘failure’ took place.

Of course, this may make some people may feel better. However, the opportunity for organisational learning is lost.

This imperative to be seen to be competent at all times is in direct contrast to the mindset of the successful innovator which is to be open minded, learn from failure and tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity.

Nowadays, we need to appreciate that technologies are complex, as are markets and the process of understanding consumer needs. It is brilliance and good luck that enables a company to fully succeed with its innovation at first try. Another way of looking at it is, if you can get part of the project right and learn on the other parts - that’s still progress.

(Obviously if you’re in industries like space flight or aviation then you have to be attentive to protecting human life at all time.)

Succeeding in innovation is as much about building innovation capability over time as creating the new product, new service or new process.

Ultimately what's going to make a difference is how the leader reacts to ‘failures’ and the tone he or she sets when reviewing what’s gone before.

Suggested Action If You're an Innovation Leader.

Notice how you feel about the ‘failure’. What is your instinctive way of dealing with it?

Is this the way to gain the most learning from it?

How do you communicate with innovation teams that have experienced a failure?

How can you record the learnings from this ‘failure’ for the benefit of your organisation in a way that does not attribute blame?

What will you do differently next time?

Read more about the University of Colarado Business School Research.

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