Organisations have historically supported success and frowned on, even punished, failure. The industrial society we live in had, for a long time, the notion that good ideas work and make money and bad ideas don’t work and the organisation loses money. We pretty much all know that’s bollocks – or do we? How many work environments have you experienced where your ideas were greeted with hostility or you tried something way out on a limb and then got chewed out in the manager’s office for wasting time or effort?
The management threat to bring this failure up on your next performance review, which in turn may affect your promotion opportunities, is a prohibitive barrier to capturing innovation
(I have a secret wish to write a dissertation – or even eventually a PhD thesis – based on the pros and cons of performance reviews). Still, this managerial negativity is more common than you would expect. We need to applaud failure, not write it down as evidence or abuse it through petty comments in often maligned and over-personalised performance reviews.
The Story of 3M
One company that comes to mind for learning this lesson early and later prospering is 3M (Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing). As I recall, and you can correct me, 3M started out as a group of relatively young people who put everything into the business and started mining. Those were the mining and manufacturing boom times in the early 20th Century. They didn’t do so well, in fact mining worthless anorthosite. But they picked themselves up again, brushed off the dust and are now one of the most successful innovators in the world today. What happened in between mining anorthosite and the current 3M?
3M and Richard Drew
In the early days, legend has it, there was a 3M sandpaper manufacturer named Richard Drew who happened to be visiting at an automobile factory where they were trying to work out how to paint a two-tone vehicle. The problem was that painting clean borders onto two-tone cars was definately not viable for mass production. Drew, who worked on sandpaper, suggested given a little time he might come up with an answer. And two years later he did exactly that.
One Man Innovating Against the Organisation
Drew went back to 3M and worked on his solution, in secret, at his own expense. He approached management with his idea and was knocked back. Again he approached them, and again he was knocked back. Finally, he mis-appropriated 3M funds and produced the prototype for Masking Tape (1925). The profits of 3M following the masking tape innovation were staggering and every house in America had it in their homes. The manager at the wheel during this time was William McKnight, who became president of 3M from 1929 to 1949.
McKnight’s Guiding Statement about Innovation at 3M
The need for his company to support innovation and failure was embedded into the 3M culture and they have gone on the bring us everything form post it notes to sophisticated electronic equipment. Where would they be without new ideas?
As our business grows, it becomes increasingly necessary to delegate responsibility and to encourage men and women to exercise their initiative. This requires considerable tolerance. Those men and women, to whom we delegate authority and responsibility, if they are good people, are going to want to do their jobs in their own way. Mistakes will be made. But if a person is essentially right, the mistakes he or she makes are not as serious in the long run as the mistakes management will make if it undertakes to tell those in authority exactly how they must do their jobs. Management that is destructively critical when mistakes are made kills initiative. And it’s essential that we have many people with initiative if we are to continue to grow.William McKnight (1948)
The idea that Google invented these ideas with their one day per week for working on individual projects is actually a myth. The idea came from somewhere and they took it and ran with it like excellent businessmen.
Failure is Not an Option
Which brings me to the article today by Jared Spool titled Failure is Not an Option — It’s a Requirement. Smart (and successful) organisations need to capture the potential ideas in their employees – ideas like masking tape that made 3M a fortune. If innovation and failure are not accepted in a corporate culture then, as McKnight pointed out in 1948, we will kill initiative. 3M have made a large part of the last century about capturing innovation in their workforce and have capitalised significantly – as opposed to simply playing it safe and making more sandpaper. Failure is not an option, it’s a requirement for successful businesses. 3M simply mastered that gameplan.