Mistakes to Help You to Innovate

It's no surprise that innovation comes with a risk, and that includes the risk of failing from time to time. If we want a strong culture of innovation, it means our projects, products and services will, unfortunately, from time to time fail. How we deal and respond to those failures plays a crucial part in whether we build a strong innovative culture or suppress any future innovative thinking.


I had the great fortune of interviewing a colleague of mine recently who had some great views on the subject. Michael Henderson is one the world’s leading corporate anthropologists who helps organisations create high-performing cultures.

I was asking Michael about innovation and failure, and he said that celebrating failures is crucial to innovative cultures. In fact, of all the organisations he has worked with across the world, the most innovative ones were the ones who would celebrate their innovation failures.

Michael, as he often does, simplified the concept by telling a story of a common ritual that tribes use. Say a small hunting party has been out on a hunt to find a good meal for the tribe. After tracking a buffalo for the last 2 days, they are finally in close proximity and ready to make the final kill when, accidentally, one of the tribesman steps on a twig and the cracking twig sound spooks the buffalo and it charges off into the distance. The tribesman now have to return to camp empty-handed.

Later that night around the fire, the tribesman who stepped on the twig has to explain to everyone why they're all hungry that night and why there's no buffalo on the menu all because of the mistake he made. He further explains what caused the mistake and how to avoid it next time.

The next day, when a new young hunter joins the hunting party, you can be guaranteed that he will do everything he can to avoid the “stepping on a twig” mistake.

This same tribal concept of acknowledging, sharing and learning from mistakes is what organisations with strong innovative cultures do regularly.

W.L. Gore & Associates (the organisation that invented Gore-Tex the breathable fabric used in outdoor parkas) is a great example of just this. Their “celebration of mistakes” plus an innovative flat business structure that encourages collaboration on projects are some of the key reasons it's made the list on Fortune Magazine's “100 Best Companies to Work For.” Gore & Associates not only celebrate the mistake and take ownership of it, most importantly, they learn from it. 

Michael Henderson suggests that organisations should actually create champions of certain mistakes so that they become the go-to person on how to avoid that mistake from happening in the future. 

Risk is inherent in innovation. Whilst we can reduce this risk through prototyping, no innovation is ever guaranteed of success. The only thing we can guarantee is that we can always learn from the mistakes we make and use this knowledge to be better prepared for the next industry-changing innovation.

Go ahead and celebrate those mistakes.


Nils Vesk
Founder of Ideas with Legs | Innovation Speaker | Consultant | Author

nils vesk