When an organisation wants to be more accepting of failure and experimental, what are the barriers? Everyone agrees that breakthrough attempts are essential for innovation and, hence, the risk of failure must be accepted by organisations.

What everyone sees in reality is that organisational rewards go only to those who deliver fault-free work. There is even academic research to evidence this fact. For example, the creative folks in advertising are often given the caveat: “No risks, please.” In an international company, the local team will not risk advertising anything that will be disapproved by those involved in judging these advertisements at the headquarters.

Only occasionally is the barrier transgressed – like with J&J’s “Nude Models Wanted” advertisement by Trikaya Grey in the 1970s, or the whacky Wheel advertising by Hindustan Lever in the mid-1980s, and the more recent Cadbury bitter-chocolate campaign.

Large organisations think that encouraging failures would have implications on its reputation and thus want to play it safe. An organisational culture of taking small bets or making fatal errors at a later stage of that work can prevent the development of a weak culture. Most people are very unclear about how to accomplish this magical state.

Here is a way to think about the issue and classify error types.

Three types of errors occur in organisations: first, the error arising due to sabotage or intentional concealment. Leadership has to demonstrate zero tolerance for this type. Second, an error occurs due to carelessness or the bending of rules. Organisations develop some tolerance for these, but do not explicitly approve of their occurrence. The third type is a creative error, which occurs due to changing market circumstances, calculated risks, experimentation or even bad luck.

These are “good errors” and can be encouraged if someone defines what a creative error is. Only then can creativity be encouraged.

Gerhard Bihl was the human resources director of BMW’s Regensburg factory around 1990. His challenge was to convert the ideas from employees’ craniums into practice. He began an activity called “Flop of the Month”, or, more elegantly put, “Creative Error of the Month”. In contrast to the conventional “Employee of the Month” scheme, which eulogises the error-free, highly efficient and ideal employee, this activity focuses on the tragic hero of everyday business, whose experiences harbour unexpected learning potential. Bihl piloted the scheme in the Regensburg factory for three-and-a-half years, during which time twelve awards were given away. In due course, the scheme petered away and the issue of encouraging creative errors remained a challenge.

In the US, Ireland and Sweden, the sharing of mistakes and lessons from misadventures is celebrated through what is called the “Golden Egg” awards. As one member of an Ann Arbor association of corporate presidents puts it, “I want to hear it from the member who got egg on his face trying out his idea.” The presentation of the award for the best mistake of the month became a standard part of their meeting, and the trophy itself added an important new dimension. It gave the company president the chance to be a model for treating mistakes as opportunities to learn how to do it better, rather than treating it as a situation requiring blame. It legitimised the importance of learning from both our failures and successes.

Tata has experimented with these concepts through a “Dare to Try” initiative. A satisfying outcome has been the openness of managers to come forward with stories that were not successful. When this category was initiated in 2007, the Tata companies had to be cajoled to participate and there were only twelve cases from six companies! In 2016 there were 250 cases from thirty-five companies. The transparency in discussing such cases has helped in building a learning culture in Tata.

Three types of lessons have been learnt from creative errors:

  1. Technology advancement: These attempts have helped teams uncover blind spots on the road to technology progression and have helped them take that big step through a risky project.
  2. Business models: Not all innovative products could be commercialised through the business models prevalent in the company. Often, products with cutting-edge technology need to be supported with novel business models.
  3. End consumers: In case of breakthrough innovations, the perception of end consumers and their consumer experience while using the product are extremely critical.

If the acceptance of creative errors is encouraged, teams and individuals will surely develop a learning culture, which will be a stepping stone for successful innovations. Such a discriminating approach to various types of organisational errors can help encourage the right errors and foster that elusive spirit of risk- taking that all organisations strive for.

A very sound technical team launched the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s, or NASA’s, Hubble Space Telescope in 1990, unfortunately, with a flawed mirror.

A trivial and avoidable error overshadowed the accomplishments of thousands of dedicated people, in the process squandering $1.7 billion of taxpayer’s money. Here is what happened. After a textbook launch, the team soon discovered the flawed mirror. A detailed investigation followed and the findings were startling. A huge error was discovered in adjusting the null corrector used to figure the mirror that caused the flaw. The device was at the contractor’s plant. Hints of the flaw in the mirror had showed up in numerous tests. The review board wondered why such a smart technical team had not rigorously pursued these hints. It was found that the schedule and budget pressures had caused them to move relentlessly forward.

The question was why the NASA scientists and engineers had not addressed these inconsistencies. The board then made a disturbing discovery. The contractor had never forwarded these troubling results to NASA! The board finally concluded that a leadership failure had caused the flawed mirror in the $1.7 billion telescope. NASA’s management of its contractors had been so hostile that they would not report technical problems if they could rationalise them. They were simply tired of the hostility. Does this episode not remind the reader of experiences in his or her company?

Here is another example. Korean Air faced frequent air crashes between 1988 and 1998. The average flight captain’s social status was so high in Korean society that the junior officer would, at best, be oblique, even in those cases that required more direct communication. Thus, in most cases, this lack of communication and teamwork between the pilot and co-pilot – due to the former’s power and high social standing – led to these plane crashes, as the co-pilots allowed the pilot to take all major decisions, even when these decisions were questionable.

Charles Pellerin explains a 4D team-building process including an online behavioural assessment to help understand each other and measure the key driver of team performance: the social context. Mature companies understand the impact of culture and team climate and have created mechanisms to measure and monitor these soft indicators which practically impact everything, especially the fostering of innovation. Companies need to inspire employees to put their most creative foot forward and come up with new ideas, concepts, processes, inventions or improvements.

Excerpted with permission from A Biography of Innovations: From Birth to Maturity, R Gopalakrishnan, Penguin Random House India.