Children will make mistakes in order to learn. Scientists experiment and this oftentimes results in mistakes. In child development, the activity to get to learning is called making mistakes. In the field of science, the activity to get to a successful result is called experimenting. Entrepreneurs try different ventures and through failures they ultimately find success. In each of these examples we learn and out of learning we develop new products, services and better ways of achieving an end goal. Failure is progress and it is a fundamental part of the innovation process. Some would argue that without failure there would be no innovation. When can a failure be considered good and when is it considered bad?
Albert Einstein famously defined insanity as, “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” To create innovation one needs to focus on a specific problem or need. Thomas Edison engaged in thousands of experiments before he succeeded in creating the light bulb. But you can be sure that after failing at one experiment, the next one was not the same and the one after that was still different. It was through failure that he ultimately succeeded. Pfizer set out to create a drug that would improve blood flow to the heart. During experimentation, the research team discovered that the drug caused penile erections and Viagra was the result of the failure to improve blood to the heart. Pfizer could have easily considered the Angina experiments to be a failure and therefore abandon the project entirely but they chose to turn a lemon into lemonade and Viagra is now a multi-billion-dollar market. Many other failures resulted in commercial successes for unintended products. Some companies, Pfizer being one such example, has a corporate culture of tolerance for a certain number of failures. Other organizations dedicate limited resources to a project and if it does not produce a success within a specified timeframe, the project is abandoned and proclaimed a failure. Napster failed to succeed with its innovation but Apple quickly capitalized on the concept and the result is the commercially successful iTunes.
Most companies like individuals talk up their successes while burying their failures. Without sharing the failures, you can be sure they are destined to be repeated. World-class innovators apply what was learned from a failure to future projects. They are more tolerant of failure because they value what can be learned from it. Their research incorporates challenges, project reviews, and time/space for experimentation. Google, like 3M and Genentech, encourages its employees to experiment. They clearly state their objectives and measure the results but encourage their staff to experiment because they know there is something to be learned from the experimental process. The human tendency to sweep a failure under the carpet is avoided if the company views the lessons learned as insightful.