The Necessity of Failure

Posted by Frank McGee on May 20, 2009

“Why must this scene take place?”

This was a question asked by a teacher in an acting program I attended (long ago, far away).  The question served as the spark for a frequent conversation that took place after actors in class performed a scene.  That conversation centered on two basic ideas:

  1. What were the actors trying to say?
  2. Did they say it?

Creativity is nurtured in an environment based on the premise that ideas are taken at face value and evaluated on whether or not they achieve their goal.  Did they achieve what they set out to do?  If so, great.  If not, work on it some more.

This approach works not because, as that worn aphorism goes, “all ideas are good ideas.”  The approach nurtures creativity because it allows us to fail.

For most of us, failure is an option that facilitates learning.  A business colleague recently stated his belief that “if you don’t fail often enough, you aren’t trying hard enough.”  In fact, in industries where R&D is all about pushing the edge of the envelope, failure is expected much of the time (just ask the pharmaceutical companies).  Not all ideas are good ideas; some just won’t work.

But we don’t always have the luxury of failure.  Companies and careers are often riding on critical decisions made every day.  If that’s the case, then how can we help create an environment of sustained creativity?

They’ve figured it out at Pixar, the animation studio behind the movies Wall-E and The Incredibles, among others.  Here is a company that expects risk; no, it encourages and apparently thrives on it.  Failure can cost a lot for movie studios but, as Fast Company pointed out, Pixar has developed a culture of sustained creativity that generates hundreds of ideas for every movie and can survive when failures occur.  It didn’t happen all at once but the approach appears to be working for them.

How do we take the Pixar model and nurture creativity in business?  Here are a few simple ideas:

  • Speak up – This is especially difficult in hard times where everyone is worried about saying something awful that will be remembered at evaluation time.  If you don’t speak up, so the thought goes, you won’t say something stupid.  Yet it is important – particularly during difficult times – to discuss and try out new ideas.  Those in leadership need to assure their colleagues that creative ideas are critical to success.  Let them know that it is the generation of ideas that will be remembered during evaluations, not the silence.  No one remembers the ones who were quiet all the time.  Not in a good way, anyway.
  • Reward the effort – Take a look at that presentation, proposal or report sent for your review.  Watch that video or speech.  Listen during the brainstorming.  Before you pass judgment, first ask “What are they trying to say?”  then, “Did they say it?”  From there you can provide feedback and, as appropriate, build on or turn down their ideas.  But first reward the creativity by giving it due consideration and judging its merits – not just dismissing it out of hand.
  • Ask about what works elsewhere – Find out what worked for people in formal classroom settings and other companies – in other words, beyond your office’s walls.  Compile a list of learning experiences that had the most impact, then use them to see what works.
  • Make it a habit – There is always so much talk about being creative and approaching problems from a new angle, yet how are these ideas put into practice?  How do they become part of a company culture?  As David Brooks pointed out in his New York Times column, success isn’t a mystery.  People wear the Master’s green sports coat, write wonderful poems or bring their organization into the black the same way they get to Carnegie Hall: practice, man, practice.

While it may be true that one person or one team alone may not be able to change a corporate culture, people will emulate what works.  If they see that innovation and creativity is successful, they’ll want to know how it was done.

Now go practice, man, practice.

Contributed by: Frank McGee
Business writer, trainer, coach

Posted in: Communications Tags: , ,

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