5 Tips on Coping with Failure

By Kaitlin Milliken |  February 2, 2021

As a part of our recent Success Stories online conference, a group of current and former innovation executives discussed their honest experiences with failure — including best practices for getting back on your feet. Contributors joined in from a variety of industries — including pharmaceuticals, retail, quick service restaurants, consumer packaged goods, and media. To create a safe space, we promised to keep speakers’ identities confidential, but five notes from the gathering are below.

  1. “‘Fail fast’ is a cute axiom, but it’s not a reality in terms of the way people’s careers are developed,” one executive said. Instead, he suggested that teams should have a stage dedicated to learning and experimenting as a part of the innovation process. “[This] sets you up for success.”
  2. Don’t run experiments too close to headquarters. The scrutiny from senior leaders, when there are some initial stumbles or hiccups, can cause things to get killed (or questioned endlessly) when they may just need more time to mature.
  3. Create realistic expectations about timeframes — especially when you’re seeking to change peoples’ habits. “We were looking for instant results, and wanted to launch a program and see immediate results,” says one innovator. But “behavior change takes time.”
  4. There’s a difference between good failure and bad failure, says one healthcare participant. For example, in healthcare, a bad failure puts patients at risk. This type of failure, he says, is never acceptable. Know and define the difference between the two types of failure with your team and leadership. 
  5. Avoid a binary approach, where innovations are either considered a success or failure. Seeing projects on a spectrum between these two outcomes helps teams prioritize learning.  
  6. Data can be misleading, one innovator recalls — especially if you aren’t getting out to observe what’s happening on the factory floor or at customer sites. “We were measuring a really narrow set of data, but when we stepped back, we began to see there was a behavior change that wasn’t where we thought. … Innovation was not in the data. It was…happening in the individual stores. When we freed ourselves from the data to observe what was organically happening, that’s where we started to uncover innovation.”

Learn more about other upcoming InnoLead events.