How To Help Your Innovation Team Bounce Back After Failure

4 Steps to Lessen the Pain and Tap Failure's Potential


From an early age, we learn to hyperbolize failure. How many of us saw B grades as a sign of subpar performance even though they're meant for above-average work? 

Avoiding failure like a food allergy may work in school, but it doesn't in business. The reality is that 84% of consumers say they want to buy from innovative companies, but 95% of new products launched end up failing.

In other words, if we want to compete, we have to keep getting up and dusting ourselves off. No matter how hard it is, we have to summon the strength to strike out again.

Failing on the Field

Athletes might be more accustomed to failure's mental bruising than anyone, and even they struggle to see past it. In one study, football players were instructed to take 10 field goal shots each. The players who repeatedly missed shots perceived the goalposts as narrower and farther away than the players who made successful kicks, who saw the posts as wider and closer. Nothing had changed, of course; failure had altered athletes' literal perception of their goal.

Failing solo, whether as a quarterback or a businessperson, is lonely and terrible. But when you fail as a team, the effects can be particularly devastating. Teams that haven't developed resilience are often easy to spot, pervaded by poor morale and interpersonal conflict. Yet in an environment like ours where experimentation is an everyday process, failure is all but a requirement of the job.

Our mantra? Stand back up and do it again. It's difficult, no doubt, to agonize over a prototype only to bury it after users balk. The trick is to help team members revive their creative energy and renew team bonds following a failure. Here's how to do that:

1. Get out of the office.

The workplace can become a mental cue for failure's sting, so take a break to socialize. Set up a team outing or happy hour so everyone can let it all out. We recently had a stressful project wrap up, so we all headed to the batting cages to bash out our pent-up frustrations.

Can a quick outing really create a more resilient, collaborative team? As British author Richard Lingard noted (though the quote is often misattributed to Plato), 'You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.' People open up when they’re outside of the office. Building chemistry with colleagues reminds all team members that they're in this together.

Let’s face it: 'We're all in this together' is not the culture of many teams. Especially at enterprises, most people go straight home after a hard day at work. But spending time together outside the office is proven to strengthen teams. In fact, nearly two-thirds of American workers say they’re more productive at work when they’re friends with co-workers outside the office, according to a report released by Accountemps.

2. Start holding retros.

Some companies are so forward-focused that they forget to learn from their own mistakes. Retrospectives, or 'retros,' are critical pieces of the teamwork puzzle. 

Growth-focused teams take retros seriously but not personally, engaging in them frequently and basing decisions around the team's experiences.

In proper retros, criticism is about problems that arose, not the people who worked on the project. At the same time, retros encourage change management and individual ownership, especially when action items are assigned to specific leaders. This gets people excited and motivated to be a part of the solution.

Retros may take time, but there's no doubt that they strengthen teams. One study brought this idea to life in an interesting way by asking participants to build LEGO models. One group had its sculptures taken apart right after it built them, while the other group had its displayed on a desk to showcase the team's progress. The result? Those who got to display their masterpieces built 11 figurines, while the group whose sculptures were disassembled only created seven.

3. Make time to play.

You don’t have to physically head to a park or amusement center, but do open the door for creative play sessions during particularly low, failure-laden moments. Creativity resets and reengages teams by forcing them to diversify their thinking. We regularly run design thinking-style design studios featuring exercises like playing a board game we invented or squishing Play-Doh into weird shapes.

Something as simple as squishing Play-Doh builds resilience by reminding us of our own creative power. As American businessman Steven Covey said, 'To be successful we must live from our imaginations, not from our memories.' The more imaginative people get, the less they need to hold on to bad experiences like an on-the-job failure.

If this seems a little too out-of-the-box for your organization, know that you can subtly add creative processes to traditional meetings. For instance, if you have to decide between several paths, consider dot voting. This strategy encourages creativity by switching up the typical “aye” and “nay” way of making group decisions.

4. Default to positive intent.

To engage in honest peer-to-peer feedback following a failure, everyone must start from a place of goodwill. This means criticizing others only to encourage individual and collective growth, not to make people feel bad or somehow undercut their contribution. Just as critically, it also means assuming others are operating with the same goal.

Think of positive intent as a sort of psychological cushion. Rather than fear trying new things, which can lead to avoidable errors in workplaces, teammates can trust that they're in for a soft landing even if things don't go as planned.

Plus, when constructive feedback is shared regularly, managers can stop dumping negative feedback with no real connection to growth opportunities in performance reviews. Employees deserve to learn about their mistakes in a timely manner, enabling them to make changes without worrying about their job or promotion potential.

You will fail. Your team will fail. Yet you needn't let it throw shade on your team's progress. If you’re serious about success, then you should be serious about failure, too.

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