Select Page

Accept that risks and failure are vital ingredients of innovation

Accept that risks and failure are vital ingredients of innovation

Failing intelligently by Rikus Grobler of Namibia Innovation Solutions

I am on the topic of tolerance of failure as part of learning how to innovate. I made the case for learning from failure and that organisations must identify failure, analyse failure and experiment deliberately to cultivate learning from failure.

“Failing intelligently” is a term that is used extensively when the topic of learning from failure is under discussion, and I want to go into more detail on this theme.

Failing Intelligently

Innovation is fraught with risk. There is risk that an innovator won’t identify important needs. Risks that innovation teams disrupt the regular operations of a business. Risks that even a promising idea isn’t accepted by the customers whose need it was meant to address. Risk that an innovation project is not executed properly.

So, the risk of failure is almost inevitable in the uncertain environment of innovation, and, if managed well, it can be a very useful thing. Indeed, organisations can’t possibly undertake the risks necessary for innovation and growth if they’re not comfortable with the idea of failing.

An alternative to ignoring failure is to foster “intelligent failure,” a phrase coined by Duke University’s Sim Sitkin (footnote from 1992 Research in Organizational Behavior article titled “Learning Through Failure: The Strategy of Small Losses.”)

Sitkin argues that organisations can adopt the concept of intelligent failure if they want to become more agile, better at risk taking, and more adept at organisational learning, i.e. learning to innovate.

For an organisation, failure can play either of the two roles: either it becomes an obstacle that hinders you from success or it becomes a stepping stone which brings you closer to success. What makes the difference is whether or not you fail intelligently. So what exactly does this mean, failing intelligently?

Failing intelligently is failing in such a way that you can extract as many lessons as possible to boost your journey to success. If you just fail, you can extract only a few or even no lesson out of it and as a result it won’t help you much to get closer to success. But if you fail intelligently, the failure will teach you a lot and it will be your stepping stone to success.

The next question then becomes, but how do you fail intelligently?

It seems that there is not much guidance available on the topic of failing intelligently, but I found some useful recommendations from Donald Latumahina:

1. Learn from the failure of other people. It’s good to learn as much as possible about the people who have walked the way before you. By learning from their failure, you do not need to experience it yourself. Why should you fall in the same pitfalls if you can avoid them?

Find out why they failed and what are the lessons they got so that you don’t need to find out the hard way. This step will save you a lot of time on your journey to success. Avoid repeating others’ mistakes at all costs.

2. Learn from the success of other people. Besides learning about what made other people fail, you should also learn about what makes other people succeed.

Again, it will save you a lot of time since you do not have to figure it out yourself. To do this, look at the people who succeed in your niche and find out the factors that make them succeed. You can learn both their personal character traits and the characteristics of their products and services.

3. Learn from your own experiences. If you have tried to do the same thing before, accumulate as many lessons as possible for your next attempt. Review how you did it, find out what worked and what didn’t work.

4. Accept that you will have to take risks. While you should calculate risk, it doesn’t mean that you should be afraid of taking risk. Being willing to take risk allows you to do your best. The role of calculating risk is to help you take the risk more confidently since you know that you are prepared for it.

Next Time

Another topic in the world of innovation that goes hand-in-hand with tolerance of failure, is believing in yourself. Next time I will dwell deeper into the concept of self-efficacy.

I conclude with a quote from Frank Wilczek: “If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not working on hard enough problems. And that’s a big mistake.”

Latumahina, D. (2007). How to fail intelligently. Online:



About The Author

Rikus Grobler

Dr Rikus Grobler is a Namibian academic, inventor, entrepreneur, public speaker, and business consultant who specializes in the development of the innovation capability of companies and individuals. He holds degrees in Engineering and Law and has an MBA and a Ph.D. in Business Administration. He is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) of the Project Management Institute (PMI), and he has also completed studies in design thinking and intellectual property management. An experienced professional with a background in manufacturing, information technology, tertiary education, research, consulting, and financial services, Dr. Grobler has been involved in innovation management for the past ten years and currently holds the position of Manager: Innovation for the Capricorn Group in Namibia. He is particularly interested in creativity, innovation, and invention.