Failure and Innovation: A Manager’s Tale

Typically these stories are used to inspire others and to transmit learning in a personal way. Often, they inspire me like the tale of George*.

George was just out of University when he landed his first job with the company for which he still works 25 years later. At the time he was hired he was extremely shy, working, long diligent hours and keeping to himself. George was also secretly terrified, that if he were alone when the phone rang, he would have to answer it and speak in English. He felt his English was bad and that if he spoke he would fail, so he hid and avoided the telephone for over a year. George did great work though and for that he was promoted, and promptly sent to Sweden to do his new job.

Now he had no choice but to speak English, as his colleagues didn’t understand his native language and he didn’t understand Swedish. So he tried as hard as he could, even coming out of his office from time to time. George’s boss noticed his reluctance and called him in one day, saying, “I have noticed you are quiet and seem reluctant to speak, what is that all about.” George confessed that it was a language issue and that he did want to fail at communicating.

George’s boss was intrigued and asked, “what is so bad about failure?” George said matter of factly that in his culture, failure was simply not tolerated, and that one would do anything not to fail. To which his boss chuckled, and took out George’s file. He then said to George, “in this culture we are rewarded for innovation, and in order to innovate you must fail.” He then pointed to a chart in George’s file and said, “this chart is a record of your failures, if it is not filled by the end of the year, you are not innovative enough for this organization and will be let go.”

So George did it, he failed early and often and he learned from it, acknowledged it and moved on. He became one of the great innovators in his organization and one of the great leaders too. Like his boss, he insists that his people experiment, try, fail and try again. George is rewarded by engaged people and great results.

How might failure help you?

*All names and defining characteristics of individuals have been changed to ensure confidentiality