Innovation at work: remove the stigma from failure

Throughout my career across several continents and industries, one business edict has been clear: failure is not an option.

Throughout my career across several continents and industries, one business edict has been clear: failure is not an option. No one wanted to be on a team that failed, and no one wanted to be in charge of an unsuccessful product or initiative.

Today, however, the idea of “failure” in business is being reexamined – and it's about time. The emerging view suggests, “Failure is not only an option; it's an essential learning step on the path to success.” In April, Harvard Business Review published “The Failure Issue: How to Understand It, Learn from It, and Recover from It.” Wired magazine dedicated an issue to failure, exploring, “Why losing big can be a winning strategy.” Recent books have examined the topic, from Kathryn Schulz's Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error to Ralph Heath's Celebrating Failure: The Power of Taking Risks, Making Mistakes, and Thinking Big.

This new view is a welcome change. The companies that flourish in these dynamic times will not be those that strenuously avoid risk, but those that embrace the mantra of David Kelley, the founder of IDEO, who says, “We fail faster to succeed sooner.”  

If it is sustained, this new perspective on failure could spur innovation, reinvent entire industries, and strengthen our economy. But there's one big and largely overlooked roadblock to a future where failure is a catalyst for success: employee attitudes.

As much as business journals and some CEOs tout the value of learning from failure, I am not sure the message has reached most workers. In fact, after years of layoffs during the recession, who can blame surviving employees for seeing caution as the safest course?

If businesses are to reap the benefits of a culture that welcomes failure as a learning tool, they need to remove the stigma from failure in the eyes of their employees. It is an area I have been exploring in my role as EVP of public affairs at Cardinal Health, a $103 billion healthcare services company that employs more than 30,000 people worldwide. Our mission is to make healthcare more cost-effective, so our customers can focus on their patients. Healthcare is certainly a field where creativity and innovation can pay big dividends for providers, patients, and taxpayers.

As you'll read here over the next few days, we have begun a journey to create an environment where we encourage greater risk-taking, and already a few early lessons are shaping our approach. And it starts with a definition.

Lesson 1: Define where failure is welcome and where it is not. 

Our company distributes drugs and medical products. Our radiopharmacies compound time-sensitive nuclear radioactive materials into unit doses that help diagnose and treat diseases like Alzheimer's, cancer, and heart disease. We manufacture medical and surgical products that doctors use in the operating room.  When it comes to quality and patient safety, clearly there is no margin for error.

Similarly, laws, regulations, and ethics afford no room for taking risks. But beyond those clearly defined areas, we are emphasizing that experimentation, and yes, failure, are welcome in the pursuit of delivering better results in less time and – where possible – at a lower cost. Every business is different, and each company must define its own areas that are open for innovation.

Shelley Bird is EVP for public affairs at Cardinal Health.

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