Creativity inherently involves risk because it uses the imagination to generate something from nothing. The common denominator in successful creative people is their ability to drive output despite the results. Disappointments become portals of discovery for new opportunities or approaches. From this point of view, failure is a necessary element in fostering innovation.
To be successful at handling creative failure, you not only must learn how to be comfortable in the company of setbacks but also find ways to celebrate when things don’t go as expected. These three strategies can help your team both plan for failure (so that creativity flourishes) as well as manage failure (so that it becomes a productive experience).
Shifting Your Failure Mindset
Since a creative team operates in a risky space, it is critical that its project manager learns how to model and nurture a mistake-filled culture. This is not an easy task since every team member needs to unlearn negative habits. Embracing failure requires reframing your mindset from wasted time and money to opportunities for instituting real change. Failure can be a teacher, motivator and a step closer toward your next big idea.
Shifting your mindset also requires understanding the distinct difference between good and bad mistakes. Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson describes intelligent failures as resulting from thoughtful experimentation that generates valuable information.
A project’s undesired results are still praiseworthy when its tasks involved exploratory testing, complex processes and difficult challenges. In contrast, preventable failures stem from process inadequacy, lack of ability, and/or inattention to or deviance from the project’s intention.
Just like fielding feedback, whenever anything goes wrong with a project it is critical that you dig into the why. By understanding the causes and context of the failure, you will be able to identify the right lessons and develop effective remedies. Edmondson recognizes that examining failures in depth is emotionally unpleasant because it “requires inquiry, openness, patience and a tolerance for causal ambiguity,” which is a difficult sell in a business environment that “rewards decisiveness, efficiency and action -- not thoughtful reflection.”
Edmondson’s research also found that managers who do not set aside time to enthusiastically look for lessons that need to be learned, without assigning blame, have employees who are unwilling to report errors. Misguided attempts at deep evaluation include team reports only about what went wrong, what procedures weren’t followed and which mistakes to avoid in the future. Effectively analyzing a failure requires the team to suspend frustration and regret, display humility, welcome questions and encourage open discussions on how the lessons learned can be applied in the next step of the journey.
First, you must give your team permission to fail. However, getting comfortable with celebrating failures is going to take some time. Start the transition by encouraging small bets on mistakes. Hewlett Packard banks on 100 small bets producing six breakthrough ideas while Toyota builds small deviations into its processes to learn from tiny failures. A creative project manager, advises Edmondson, should design pilots with optimal conditions rather than representative ones to produce knowledge about what won’t work. “Hunger to succeed can later inhibit the success of the official launch,” she warns.
Innovative companies have even learned how to celebrate the effort to fail. From Intuit to P&G, employees are rewarded for taking risks with thoughtful experimentation through a variety of incentives like higher marks on annual performance reviews. One company even bestows a prestigious Failure of the Year award on employees who run with a great idea but fail to produce results. The idea is to celebrate the mindset of being willing to rise to the challenge.