Redefining Failure for Innovation Success

High angle view of a group of young successful businesspeople in a meeting analyzing and planning a new strategy (1)

"Failure" should mean, at least in part, "opportunity."                                                                                                              

Carter Liebscher|
December 1, 2020

The word “failure” doesn’t have many positive connotations. In fact, by most definitions, it is the definition of negativity.

How, then, do two-thirds of the fastest growing companies continue growing after regular failure, learning from failure and succeeding shortly after?

It’s the framing these companies use when encountering failure. Failure is, to such growth-oriented companies, a learning experience that provides a clearer path to success. After all, when you know what doesn’t work, you have a better idea of what will.

Does this mean your organization, specifically your innovation department, should throw anything and everything at the wall and wait for something to stick? Not necessarily. Showing restraint when pursuing new projects and initiatives (in other words, incremental innovation) is a popular approach for early, wary innovators.

That said, a sense of experimentation from the get-go is necessary to inspire even safe, solid ideas. In other words, an organizational culture of innovation that defines failure as part of the process and encourages all stakeholders to keep innovating.

Here’s how you and your innovation department can help redefine failure—while circumventing total losses—by encouraging employee creativity and experimentation early on, involving multiple departments in regular communication with each, and adjusting goals and budgets as results come in.

Encouraging Employee Creativity and Experimentation Early On

Setting the stage for innovative thinking among employees—all employees, across all departments—is a vital first step to reaching vaunted innovation success.

Only 29% of employees believe that they’re expected to be creative in their role. They very well might have workable solutions to pain points they frequently experience, or they might have novel ideas that may improve your company’s bottom line entirely.

Implementing a more bottom-up approach to communication—that is, a communication style that includes employees, their ideas, and their perceptions of the company in small- and large-scale organizational decisions—can encourage innovative thinking from those who didn’t previously think as such and galvanize more innovation-oriented employees to share their thoughts.

On top of regular, open-forum meetings, allowing employees to spend some time for professional development—researching the latest findings in their field, working on pet projects—will not only help put innovation at the forefront of employees’ minds, but help keep employees on for the long haul.

Encourage Interdepartmental Collaboration

As you open the lines of communication between leadership and employees, the next step to implement an organization-wide positive attitude around innovation is to ensure departments are speaking with each other.

This might be the case already in your organization. Perhaps your marketing and finance departments meet often to iron out ad spend, or your product management team is connecting often with engineering to see the latest prototype.

However, encouraging even greater cross-pollination can help collectivize and redirect employees’ attention toward more impactful work: identifying customer needs, highlighting a technical spec in marketing materials that may increase conversions, maintaining your supply chain in times of crisis.

When each department has even a glimpse into another’s day-to-day tasks, employees start laying the foundation for small but impactful developments that can turn into major innovations.

Adjusting Innovation Goals When Encountering

Building a culture of creativity is the first step; encouraging employees to share and act on that creativity is the seconding; and reviewing the results and adjusting if need be is the third.

This is the point where your organization approaches setbacks with positivity.

Here’s a hypothetical: Let’s say your organization’s goal was to increase efficiency by 5% by the end of the quarter. After sharing with employees that goal, they met with both leadership and other departments on how they might accomplish that, going over their working day and working pain points. After collecting ideas and insights, leadership implemented some of the offered solutions. Employees felt valued, morale was boosted, productivity and efficiency seemed to go up—but it actually only increased by 3%

It wasn’t a 5% increase in efficiency, but it was an increase in morale, a data point that reflects well on employee retention, engagement, and yes, overall innovation.

Did you fail to meet this goal? On paper, you were two percentage points away from your goal, so yes. But you built a lasting culture of innovation, one that will surely provide even more innovative employee ideas.

It’s a cliche, but there’s always a silver lining in unmet goals. Sometimes the initial goal just wasn’t the right one to tackle.


Redefining failure seems like a daunting tasks—and one that your organization is better off not taking. Without opportunities for learning, however, there is no growth. As such, “failure” is better off framed as “opportunity,” something that our current circumstances have certainly taught many organizations already.

An idea management platform that provides transparency to both employees and leadership can circumvent major missteps and net gains no matter what.

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