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How Failure Actually Grows Your Innovation Culture

How Failure Actually Grows Your Innovation Culture

Failure rituals and the innovator’s journey.

A single batch of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream produced at their Waterbury, VT plant contains 80,000 pints of ice cream. Of course, 80,000 pints is relatively small for an ice cream producing powerhouse who manufacturers up to one million pints per day.

But not every flavor will reach Ice SCREAM celebrity status like Cherry Garcia, Chubby Hubby, or Half Baked. Even new flavors (of which Ben & Jerry’s produces about three or four every year) need a minimum of 80,000 satisfied or, at least, curious customers willing to purchase it before it reaches the production floor.

As in every industry, failure is inevitable. Some flavors won’t be widely accepted and others will fall out of favor. For Ben & Jerry’s, celebrating flavor fails is uniquely ritualized in their organization’s culture: the physical and virtual Flavor Graveyard.

The flavor graveyard “pay[s] tribute to our dearly de-pinted” and honors the failure that happens when we innovate. In fact, many organizations, from Google and WL Gore to Intuit and Huntsman are commemorating failed projects.

Why is celebrating failure becoming part of an organization's innovation culture? One reason may be found in the mythos of the Hero’s Journey that every innovation group experiences.

In 1948, narratologist Joseph Campbell identified the steps taken in the “hero’s journey” in mythology. According to Campbell, the hero’s journey culminates with a transformed hero returning with the “boons,” or the gifts from the journey, to be shared with their community. In turn, the community establishes rituals, builds monuments, and displays artifacts to celebrate the hero and the journey.

As with communities encouraging their best and brightest to go beyond the threshold of the known to the unknown, to push the boundaries of what is possible, organizations must also establish rituals, monuments, and artifacts to inspire and build community around their innovators.

Unlike stories of the hero’s journey, which typically end in success, the innovator’s journey is riddled with failure. Therefore, organizations must also normalize, destigmatize, and celebrate failure. Doing so provides the psychological safety necessary for innovators to share stories about their experiences.

Here are three epic examples of organizations celebrating and normalizing failure as a generative part of innovation.

[Related: How Innovation Starts with an Honest and Open Dialogue with Yourself]

Physical storytelling: Failure in miniature.

Celebrating failure can inspire innovation; failure rituals can also educate people to understand why an innovation failed. In our interview with Senior Director of Innovation at PayPal, Michael Todasco, he shared that Paypal’s innovation team decided to create a small-scale model of their campus with their innovation teams’ failures told as a physical story.

Todasco shares that this ritual of physically documenting PayPal’s failures highlights that “just because things didn’t work in the past, does not mean they are not going to work today. We had all of these ideas; this should serve as inspiration.” Ultimately, Todasco believes that instituting this failure ritual serves as “a reminder to those of us at PayPal what came before and how we can build even better things in the future.”

Leveraging a failure culture fosters opportunity for learning or growth and hopefully prevents repeating the same mistakes and failures.

The ritual of food: Dessert and discussion.

Another great example of a company that embraces the idea of documenting and “celebrating” failure narratives is MITRE - and this one involves food!

MITRE Corporation innovation leader Dan Ward explains that their innovation teams eat cake as part of their failure ritual. The team members sit around, eat cake, and reflect: What was attempted and how to account for the outcome? By creating a specific ritual around eating “failure cake,” innovation teams know that there is a time and place to reflect and grow.

What started at MITRE as one team’s failure cake is now an official ritual: MITRE gets a cake, sets up a table in the company cafeteria, and encourages employees to celebrate their failures. By filling out a sticky note with a failure story, the innovator gets a piece of cake.

Ward recognized the ritual’s benefit because “everybody fails…by being honest about the failure and having something sweet, having that cake helps reduce the pain and the shame of that experience.” Ritualizing “failure cakes” encourages teams to reflect on past failures, learn from mistakes, and encourages creativity.

Ward concludes that, “whatever company you work with, wherever you are, go buy a cake. Set it up in the cafeteria, some public place and say: ‘Give us a failure story, we’ll give you a piece of cake.’ And just watch the magic unfold.”

[Related: Discovering Your Inner Resolve: How to Find Courage in Adversity]

“That’s the way things are done:” An outdated mindset.

Every company benefits by taking risks and allowing the possibility of failure. In larger, settled companies, there may be such a well-established product, pattern, and environment that rocking the boat seems counterintuitive.

However, the DuPont corporation instituted ritual frameworks to help innovation teams work through failure. “Dead Projects Day” is an event for DuPont teams to create and share with the company narrative presentations of their brilliant failures of the past year.

As Lindsey Karpowich, New Product Development Agile Coach at DuPont, explains, a company accepts failure narratives “give[s] folks the confidence and the motivation to keep going. [Because if] we have a million great ideas [and] if one thing doesn’t work, [an organization can say] ‘don’t worry, you’re going to have another project to work on.’”

Creating an organizational framework in which projects and innovators can still succeed in spite of, or even because of, failures will serve to accelerate innovation and better support innovators.

Failure is part of the journey, not the destination.

At Untold Content, we help industries harness the power of story in the innovation journey. Built on insights from 100+ global innovation leaders, we are proud to offer innovation storytelling training and toolkits that include proven strategies, templates, and tools to help you communicate innovations effectively and efficiently.

Failure is an inevitable step in the innovation journey. What sets innovation teams apart is how they frame the experience.

[Related: How to Adopt a Growth Mindset and Revolutionize Your Career]

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Katie Taylor is the CEO of Untold Content. She just launched a podcast, Untold Stories of Innovation, where she interviews top innovation leaders about why storytelling matters to the art of innovation.


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