Embracing Failure Means You Keep Improving

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Creativity, Inc." by Ed Catmull. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the purpose of embracing failure? How can you use failure in a creative workplace?

Embracing failure is part of the corporate culture at Pixar. You take failure as the key to improving your idea and your project.

Read more about embracing failure and how it can help.

Embracing Failure

Failure is essential to a creative workplace. Without it, new ideas can’t be discovered or fostered because innovation requires risk. If you don’t take risks, your final product will likely be unoriginal. However, just because failure is a necessary component of creativity doesn’t make it an easy concept to embrace.

Separating Fear From Failure

Often, people define failure as a “necessary evil.” While this is well-intentioned, it actually perpetuates the stigma of failing. Failure isn’t evil. It’s an inevitable result of highly innovative work. When you and your team fail, it may not be pleasant, but it gives you valuable information as you continue to explore new ideas and concepts.

When you remove fear, you normalize failure. At Pixar, this normalization has become so prevalent that directors actually worry when they’re not experiencing any failures or issues because they’re actually embracing failure. For example, Catmull once praised the team of Toy Story 3 for not having a lot of issues during their production process. The team was offended because they believed Catmull had implied they hadn’t taken enough risks. 

To determine if your company has a negative view of failure, consider what happens when a mistake is found:

  • Do people come together to solve the problem, or do they go to their separate corners and say nothing? If people come together and take responsibility, then fear of failure isn’t at the core of people’s decision-making process.
  • Do people take responsibility as a group, or do they search for a scapegoat? If people search for a scapegoat or refuse to contribute to solutions, then fear of failure is probably at the core of people’s decision-making process.

As a leader, one of the best ways you can take the stigma out of failure is to admit your own failures. Instead of ignoring your mistakes, explain what you learned and how you moved forward. This will make your employees more comfortable embracing and learning from their own failures.

When money is involved, it’s often hard to accept failure because of the amount of resources it can cost. To circumvent this, create low-stakes environments where teams can explore new ideas without the fear of costing the company significant amounts of money. This could be a think-tank or R&D department that focuses on investing time in new concepts. 

Taking the Pressure off Managers by Embracing Failure

Middle managers often fear failure because they’re under pressure to stay within deadlines and budgets. To keep up with demands from upper management, middle managers often resort to micromanaging their teams and severely limiting the risks that they’re able to take. However, the purpose of a manager isn’t to restrict risk-taking. It’s to create an environment in which employees can fail and recover. 

Getting managers to embrace the potential of failure requires that you build trust. You have to trust your managers to deal with problems as they arise and avoid the urge to jump in the first sign of failure. Likewise, managers have to trust their employees to take risks and do the jobs that they were hired to do. Lastly, employees have to trust that their manager won’t punish them if they fail. Instead, managers have to be patient and willing to help employees.

This trust is developed through transparency and candidness. When you keep secrets from your employees, you send the message that you have something to hide, and that you can’t trust your employees. In contrast, transparency shows your team that you have no hidden agenda, and you trust them with valuable information.

Embracing Failure Means Pushing Forward Despite Fear

As a leader, one of the worst things you can do for your team is stagnate. Out of fear, some leaders spend so much time planning ways to avoid failure that they ultimately don’t make any progress towards their end goal. This leads to decreased productivity and morale as employees lose faith in their leadership. Also, over-planning often leads to attachment, making leaders willing to adjust and adapt as issues arise.

Make decisions and take risks as a leader. When you make decisions, it allows your team to feel like they’re actually working towards a final destination. Even if these decisions don’t pan out in the end, it gives your organization momentum. This isn’t to say that planning isn’t important. Have a roadmap in place as you work through a project, but you can’t allow that roadmap to dictate every decision that you make or keep you pushing ahead on a project. 

For example, the original concept for Monsters, Inc. started as a film about a 30-year-old man who was dealing with “monsters” that represented his childhood fears. The filmmakers moved ahead with the idea but discovered a more effective story within the world of “monsters.” The final product was ultimately a very different film about a group of monsters scaring children to generate electricity. However, the film wouldn’t exist at all if they hadn’t taken the time to experiment with the original concept.

Knowing When to Let Go

While embracing failure is necessary for creative success, consistent failure can destroy a project or organization. If a team doesn’t seem to be learning from their mistakes, you will eventually have to pull the plug on a project or remove the people who aren’t growing. If this happens, take the time to analyze why this project or person failed to learn from their mistakes. This will give you insight when it comes time to start a new project or hire a new team member.

For example, Pixar had a string of troubled projects in the early 2010s. Catmull and his team had to pull the plug on a long-developing project and new directors seemed to be struggling to learn from their mistakes. Pixar’s leadership team got together to discuss why their projects weren’t working as well as they had been in the past. The leadership team realized their teams were struggling because their new directors didn’t have mentors to ensure their success. Leaders developed a mentorship program to guide their new directors and projects.

Embracing Failure Means You Keep Improving

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Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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