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The Glory of Failure – Part 2: Iterate to innovate

This is the second part of a blog post discussing some points raised at a Cambridge RSA event called the Glory of Failure – part of a two-year project to look to explain and promote the benefits of failure within organisations, individuals and society. Part One is here.

Failure could be beneficial

The aim of the RSA project is to demonstrate the power of failure as a learning tool. It has some pretty grand ambitions:

 Our vision is of a world where we can create, innovate and thrive free from the stigma of failure.

Our mission is to explain and promote the benefits of failure within organisations, individuals and society.

Having described the points around why organisations reject failure as a method of learning, the discussion turned to ways of addressing these issues.

Here are some of the methods which have been implemented to highlight the potential of failure as a learning resource.

Autonomous business units

One of the stated barriers to innovation was the problem of scale. The bigger the organisation, the more difficulty there was in generating innovation. The solution was the attempt to create smaller, more flexible departments with a degree of autonomy to achieve results.

An attendee, a senior officer in a local authority, talked about a visit to a major software company, the employees of which were allowed, indeed encouraged, to work on new ideas which would benefit the company as a whole.

She said a similar approach had been successfully introduced within her organisation. Small semi-autonomous units operated within main departments. They could draw on resource from the main department when needed but had the flexibility to make decisions at the lowest possible level, to try new service delivery methods.

Lessons from entrepreneurs

“For entrepreneurs the word failure is not in their language” so said the speaker Esmee Wilcox.  I think she’s right. Sort of.

Failure is in the lexicon, but the difference is they are not afraid of it. They don’t celebrate failure, but they do try to learn from it. They tend to fail fast, learn and move on. They exemplify what it is the RSA wants to achieve with this project.

One start-up publisher at the event said he encouraged his team to come up with a mistake of the week. Understanding what went wrong was a vital business tool to improving service delivery.

“We didn’t mark our successes, we know what they look like – but we did examine our failures.”

So why not work with entrepreneurs to understand how to be more agile when it comes to innovative project delivery? Or at the very least introduce some entrepreneurial discipline into business units or departments?

Relationships and collaboration

Want to innovate? Form a partnership. Collaboration was seen as key to piloting successful innovative projects. From a local government point of view, the ability to launch a new project can be difficult without support and relationships from other departments and even agencies. Increasingly it’s difficult to provide services or products without it.

Sharing

Sharing information is vital. The role of communication in sharing best practice is important. Suffolk County Council established an “idea cookbook” designed to highlight creativity and innovation within the organisation as well as inspire other departments to innovate.

The adoption of technology – collaborative software, blogs, twitter – was also seen as valuable tools to help share knowledge.

Reward risk

Innovation is risky and individuals may be unwilling to suggest new ideas unless there is potential for reward. This doesn’t mean financial incentives, it could simply be about ensuring people feel valued.

Not giving up

Persistence seemed to be the simplest lesson.  One participant at a previous event defined it as: “Failure or success is not determined until you stop trying.”

Other resources

More information on the Glory of Failure can be found on the website

The RSA has also published a book called the Failure Files.

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