Why we need to encourage our work teams to fail

Employees can help a business succeed, especially if failure and experimentation are encouraged

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American inventor Thomas Edison and the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs have a significant factor in common. Aside from revolutionising the way we live, these innovators failed multiple times.

Before inventing the light bulb, Edison failed 10,000 times. When asked about his failures, he famously said: “I have not failed 10,000 times – I've successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.” Jobs was forced to resign from Apple in 1985, the business he co-founded with Steve Wozniak, before returning in 1997 and transforming the way we consume information.

Failures play a pivotal role in helping employees to grow and companies succeed. Throughout our childhood and adolescence, we were encouraged to experiment, to make mistakes that ultimately helped us to learn and develop.

But once we join the workforce, failure on the job is generally unaccepted. It could even cost us our jobs. Thus, we end up with team members who may be too shy to experiment, or innovate. Because of untapped employees’ potential, businesses can face obstacles that affect their bottom line if they don't encourage failure and experimentation.

A few years ago, I worked with a creative intern. She had implemented a number of creative projects during her studies, and we believed that she could contribute greatly to our team. During her training, however, she was reluctant to come forward with new ideas.

After chatting with her about her lack of engagement, she told me how she would like to experiment with new concepts but was afraid of failing and jeopardising her internship. I knew then that I needed to encourage failure – and lead by example.

My intern wasn’t a unique case. In fact, a number of my acquaintances told me how they would rather do as they are instructed and not engage in a project or an idea that may fail and upset their managers, especially that their managers don’t necessarily embrace a company culture where failure is accepted.

But this is where failure can be fruitful. My mentor planned a weekly meeting with his managers and senior employees, where they would put potential ideas on the table and test them. Failure is expected, and potential ideas would be refined until they were good enough.

What happened? Employees became more open about sharing new ideas, thus inspiring the launch of pioneer products and services. They were happier and quickly fixed their mistakes instead of covering them up.

A few changes to your company's culture can encourage your employees to bring their ideas forward to help spark creativity

What good comes out of failure? The answer is in the science.

In a 2018 working paper, titled Mitigating Malicious Envy: Why Successful Individuals Should Reveal Their Failures, co-author and Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Alison Wood Brooks, discusses how talking about failure can bring team members closer as it humanises them.

It also generally increases "benign envy", which can motivate team members to perform better. Another study, published in Scientific American, found how making mistakes helps the brain mature and, in essence, makes people smarter.

So how can organisations embrace a culture where mistakes are encouraged? A few changes to your company’s culture can encourage your employees to bring their ideas forward to help spark creativity.

As in the case of my mentor, team members take cues from their management. Leaders should talk about their failures as much as their success. In other words, failure should be normalised and experimentation encouraged.

The former chairman of India’s Tata Group, Ratan Tata, believes in failure in the workplace. Before his retirement in 2012, Mr Tata organised a unique competition: A prize for the best failed idea in an effort to emphasise the importance of the company to embrace risk.

Management should encourage their teams to fail fast. This means asking team members for feedback on an idea at its initial stage, instead of spending more time and resources on it. That way they can move to the next idea fast.

Management should also foster an open-door policy and transparent culture, where ideas and experimenting are celebrated. It could be as simple as providing the room for employees to experiment, just as in the case of my mentor.

What I’ve learned throughout my business journey is that people are a business’s greatest wealth. The combination of knowledge, creativity, ideas and perspectives can help a business soar to untapped horizons, even more if a company’s culture encourages failure and experimentation.

Manar Al Hinai is an award-winning Emirati journalist and entrepreneur, who manages her marketing and communications company in Abu Dhabi