February 2016 | 

Stop Fearing Failure: Build a More Innovative Organization

Stop Fearing Failure: Get a More Innovative Organization

The surgery department at Johns Hopkins Hospital is a source of continuous innovation. But for Dr. Martha Zeiger, professor of surgery and associate dean for postdoctoral affairs, bringing those innovations to the marketplace is a new challenge. “Commercialization is something that has been missing in the past, but we are now placing an emphasis on licensing technologies and getting innovations out,” she explains. “I came to Wharton for the Innovation for Growth program to help get us started.”

Jeff Brinling, senior vice president at Erie Insurance Group, has a different challenge. “Most people don’t think ‘insurance and innovation.’ But our industry is experiencing significant change. Those changes are coming from technologies like driverless cars and accident avoidance features in current vehicles, customer service expectations, and buying habits. If we are not thinking ahead, we will be left behind.”

In the insurance industry, Erie is already known as an innovator. It was among the first insurance companies to receive permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to use drones commercially, and is currently using them to assist with property damage claims. Erie is also one of a small group of companies working with Google on the development of Google Glass — its use by adjusters was entered in the insurance company’s “think ahead” competition, which solicits new ideas from employees.

Zeiger and Brinling both turned to Wharton — one to make a bold move by getting the innovation process started, and the other to take it to the next level. Faculty who teach in Innovation for Growth include not only award-winning Wharton professors, but also former innovation leaders at Procter & Gamble and Lego. Its focus on strategy and value creation, as opposed to R&D management, sets it apart.

For Brinling, an important takeaway was the emphasis on failure and learning. “I knew I was comfortable with experimenting and having projects that didn’t work out. But through the program I realized that my team didn’t necessarily know that. I came back from Wharton and told them that as long as we take our best shot, I am prepared for a success or a failure and that is ok.” He says they were shocked.

Employees at companies like 3M, which holds annual “Failure Academy Awards,” and Toyota, where new assembly line workers are encouraged to look for defects, would not have been surprised. In fact, organizations known for their innovative culture embrace failure as learning opportunities that lead to better and more creative ideas.

“It’s not all about winning,” Brinling explains. “In fact, you can’t really be an innovative organization if there is an expectation that everything will be a success. Once you establish an environment where people are comfortable with experimenting, you can be more collaborative and creative. If you’re just trying to succeed at everything, you’re not going to take any risks and you miss out on a lot of opportunities.”

When Brinling returned to work after a week in the program, he came back to a project that was already in motion. “That idea of taking your best shot changed the way we are implementing the pilot program. It’s a different approach — one that’s more aggressive. What I really came away with was the idea that if you are continuously innovating, it’s ok if some things don’t work because there is a lot you can learn.”