Is Failure a Thing that You Should Avoid?

Think about your own life at work as well as outside and consider how strongly you try to avoid failures. Avoiding failures is a normal reaction to people and failure is almost invariably considered a negative or even a scary thing.

This attitude, however, is not constructive in business, as it is an obstacle to creativeness and continuous renewal of experimental culture. Experimental culture aims to develop innovative solutions and activities by actively doing and experimenting with different things and testing the methods that are proven to work elsewhere and for very different types of things. Experimental culture allows uncertainty, and risks and failures occur only if there is nothing to learn about experiments and mistakes. In Finland, the current state of  experimental culture is considered to be below average. The issue is so important that it can even be found in the government’s top projects [1]. It was also extensively discussed by experts and industry professionals during Laatukeskus Excellence Findland’s Quality seminar in May 2017, where we attended.

Experimental culture is based on the idea that failure is a bad thing only if it doesn't teach you anything

Real experimental culture cannot be born unless failure is allowed

“Success represents the 1% of your work which results from the 99% that is called failure.”– Soichiro Honda, Founder of Honda[2]

Failures or mistakes are important for innovation, as they often lead to new insights or alternative ways of doing things. Innovations that started out from mistakes are, for example, a source for many medical findings such as penicillin and pacemakers [3].

However, permitting failures does not mean allowing carelessness, indifference or negligence. The consequences of health and safety mistakes can be very serious and should in no way be encouraged. The experiential culture is more about understanding that sometimes well-thought-out plans or reasonable ideas and experiments do not work as expected and something can be learned from them. [4] Strong experimental culture encourages people to open up and try experiments that out of the ordinary or sound funny at first.

While failure can be a source of innovation, research has shown that many organizations fail to accept failures easily or even try to eliminate them altogether. In these companies rewarding is done by achieving milestones, even though new experimentation and venturing may give better results. It is worth doing a lot of small scale experiments and then applying the things that are known to work. Companies should find a better balance in how much they value the results and learning outcomes for the future. [5] If management does not learn to allow failures, it kills innovativeness.

For many companies, trying out experimental culture means cultural change. Workers should be encouraged to try things even if there’s a risk of failure. The result may be something new and innovative or at least knowledge of something that does not work. And in the long run, confidence and responsibility may follow, making the people more effective at their work.

Experimental culture and tolerance of failures get their start from good management

How can a supervisor support experimental culture?

In cultural change, the focus is often on the management, and its role is very important in increasing the experimental culture. One can easily imagine that experimental culture can’t be realized if the management or the nearest supervisor starts pointing their finger at each failure. By what means can people in leadership and management roles be able to support experimental culture?

HRB on käsitellyt kokeilukulttuuria ja ideaalista johtajaa useissa artikkelissa. He osaavat sanoillaan ja teoillaan auttaa ihmisiä pääsemään epäonnistumisten pelosta ja samalla kykenevät luomaan kulttuuria, jossa älykkäällä riskinotolla voidaan luoda innovaatioita ja arjen toiminnassa jokainen on toimintatapojen kehittäjä. Listaamme tähän artikkeleissa mainittuja epäonnistumisia sietävän johtajan piirteitä:

HRB has discussed experimental culture and its ideal leader in several articles. With their words and actions ideal leaders can help people to overcome fears of failure. At the same time they are able to create a culture in which intelligent risk-taking can create innovations and in everyday life everyone is a developer of working methods. Below we list the characteristics of a leader who can tolerate failures mentioned in this article:

  • They recognize when failure is the result of sensible behavior and when it’s the case of indifference or intentional negligence. Experiments and mistakes are approached as results that can be explored, which can be learned from and which can be used to build something new.
  • They are trying to break social or bureaucratic obstacles inside the business, so they can better deal with their employees and increase co-operation between people working in different organizational units
  • For them leading is more cooperation than control and requires the ability to listen. They are constantly interacting with the people they lead and are familiar with their work. They are thus able to raise questions that really support and help people in their work. Mutual trust creates the courage to try new things.
  • Instead of praise or criticism, they take an analytical and non-condemnive approach when looking at projects. When positive feedback is provided, feedback is not just a “doing good!” comment on the general level, but feedback must show understanding of the work.
  • They encourage their employees to collaborate and share ideas and are able to create this enabling atmosphere.[6]
  • After a failure, there are no “What Happened?” questions and no “Who did this?” The goal is to learn something and they will encourage others to do so.
  • They encourage people to try new things and even ti tell them when the experiments don’t go well. [7] They understand that hiding mistakes and failures takes away from others the opportunity to learn and it is a source of realistic risks.

As a conclusion it can be said that if true experimental culture is to be sought, a good place to start is in the attitudes of management and superiors and their work with the other employees. Also, we all can think about our own approach to tasks. Do we dare to experiment enough? Do we try boldly? Do we want to develop our work? Now is the time to start.

NOOA change management SaaS has been built to encourage and facilitate every participant in creating new ways of working and also for developing experimental culture. Check out NOOA at


[1] Kokeileva Suomi / Valtioneuvoston kanslia (2017) Mitä on kokeilukulttuuri? – Muutoksen ainekset.

[2] (2017) Aforismeja ja lainauksia: Menestys.

[3] Shoemaker, P. (2012) Why Failure is the Foundation of Innovation.

[4] Farson, R. & Keyes, R. (2002) The Failure-Tolerant Leader.

[5] Shoemaker, P. (2012) Why Failure is the Foundation of Innovation.

[6] Farson, R. & Keyes, R. (2002) The Failure-Tolerant Leader.

[7] Edmondson. A.C. (2011) Strategies for Learning from Failure.


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