Some failures need painkillers

posted by Ravi Arora June 13, 2016

Obstinacy and its detrimental effect on innovation was the subject that I discussed briefly in the previous post. I also referred to ‘Zombie amnesties’, a program that kills projects that have no hope but are continuing because of obstinacy. More interestingly, this act is considered positive with no negative effect on any individual. If a company organizes ‘Zombie amnesties’ in which people participate, it is an indicator of a supportive culture for innovation. (Read – We do not have the culture of innovation)

The above sounds simple and straight forward but, it is not easy for organizations to allow the freedom to fail.

Creative failures

Spectrum of failure

Paul1 in his article wrote, ‘Although organizations need to make mistakes in order to improve, they go to great lengths to avoid anything resembling an error. That’s because most companies are designed for optimum performance rather than learning, and mistakes are seen as defects that need to be minimized. Executives, moreover, perceive that flawless execution is what makes them valuable to the organization. In business (except for venture capital firms and entrepreneurial start-ups), an executive’s reputation and rewards are typically based on the height of his or her successes, not on the depth of learning from failures.’

The desire to have opposing behaviors (encouraging freedom to fail and avoiding failures) co-exist in an organization creates ‘‘innovation stalemate’’2. One of the solutions that companies have used to avoid this stalemate is the use of ‘creative errors’or ‘Praiseworthy failures.3 ‘All the errors committed by people and teams in an organization could be classified in a spectrum of errors. At one end of the spectrum are the errors that arise due to sabotage or intentional concealment of errors. Such errors should have ‘zero tolerance’ across all levels in any organization.

In the middle of this spectrum, there are errors which happen due to carelessness and inadequate capabilities of people. Organizations should have some tolerance for these errors which varies across levels, grades and personalities. Such errors should be equally discouraged by organization.

At the other end of the spectrum are the Creative Errors or Praiseworthy Failures which occur due to changes in the external factors and bad luck. Such errors usually happen when someone attempts to explore the unknown or is dealing in a highly ambiguous situation. These errors are mostly useful for organizational learning and may be encouraged.

This discriminating reaction of management to various types of organizational errors helps in sending the right message and fosters the right culture that allows the two opposite behaviors to coexist – ‘no errors/mistakes for highly predictable things’ and ‘Accepting creative errors to give freedom to fail for innovation projects’

This ‘willingness to accept creative errors (or failures)’ requires an explicit manifestation from the senior management and ‘Zombie amnesties’ was one of the ways to communicate the intent to the organization.  Such postures provide psychological safety3 to employees, which is necessary for innovations. Let me share two examples of companies, which had created a process to invite their people to share failures.

Accepting creative failures

David Tanner in his book4 reports that a President of a company created the “Golden Egg Award” to emphasize the importance of learning rather than blaming for mistakes. The sharing of mistakes and other misadventures was a favorite part of monthly meetings of a group of presidents of Ann Arbor businesses. As a result, the enthusiasm of the members led to the idea of a “Golden Egg Award.”  As one member put it, “I want to hear it from the member who got egg on his face trying out his idea”. A trophy was soon put together with the help of a L’eggs pantyhose plastic egg container and some gold spray paint.

Presentation of this award for the best “mistake” of the month became a standard part of their meeting, and the trophy itself added an important new dimension. The winning president was expected to take the trophy back to his office and leave it on his desk for the entire month. The presence of the Golden Egg raised questions from visitors and led to telling the questioner how he got the award. It also gave the president the chance to be a model for treating mistakes as opportunities to learn how to do it better rather than as a situation requiring blame. It legitimized the importance of learning from failures.

BMW5 had experimented with a similar idea several years ago. Gerhard Bihl was the human resources director of the BMW Regensburg factory in 1980s. As a response to the challenge of encouraging people to work on the ideas without worrying for failures, he began an activity which he called “Flop of the Month” or, more elegantly, “Creative Error of the Month.” In contrast to the conventional ‘employee of the month’ scheme, which eulogizes the error-free, highly efficient and ideal employee, this activity focused on the ‘tragic hero’ of everyday business, whose experiences harbor unexpected learning potential. Bihl ran the scheme for three and a half years during which time 12 awards were given.

The thinking behind having an official creative error of the month award was to avoid having a workforce that failed to challenge the status quo, rested on their laurels and favored tested strategies over innovation. The idea was to remove the stigma from making an intelligent mistake at work. For a policy like that of BMW to exist and sustain, we need to be cautious and careful about how we define these creative failures.

I have heard of similar awards being created at Hershey, DuPont, FedEx and J&J. For such a scheme to work and sustain for a longer time, it must be openly supported by the top. Employees must feel that if they take a risk and fail, they will be supported, and the case will be handled fairly.

Role of leaders

The importance of support from Leaders to encourage risk taking is mentioned by Caroline6, ‘The point we want to drive in is that behind each successful innovation story that we hear, there are people who champion the idea, rally for support at each stage of the innovation process and make it their mission to make innovations successful. These intrepid people who put their careers at stake and take enormous risk on behalf of their organizations in making innovations successful are capable of doing so because of the support they receive from their leaders.”

While accepting creative failures would certainly help in creating the right culture for innovation, one needs to be cautious of not overdoing it. Such methods and processes should always work as pain-killers (for committing a creative failure) and not become a source of motivation that drives more creative failures.


  1. Paul J.H.Schoemaker and Robert E.Gunther 2006, ‘The wisdom of deliberate mistakes’ HBR June
  2. Creative errors and heroic failures, B Kriegesmann, T Kley, MG Schwering, Journal of Business Strategy, 3/25)
  3. Amy C. Edmondson, “Strategies for Learning from Failure,” Harvard Business Review (April, 2011)
  4. Tanner, David. Total Creativity in Business & Industry-Roadmap to Building a More Innovative Organization. Advanced Practical Thinking, inc., 1997.
  6. Caroline Dombrowski, Jeffrey Y. Kim1, Kevin C. Desouza, Ashley Braganza, Sridhar Papagari, Peter Baloh and Sanjeev Jha, 2007, Elements of Innovative Cultures, Knowledge and Process Management