Rewarding failure

By Glen Jenkins, CIPD Reward Examiner 

I recently read an article on ‘Google X’, the internet search company called the Moonshot Factory where engineers and inventors collaborate on developing new ideas, when a quote from ‘The Captain of Moonshots’, Astor Teller, jumped out*.

“You must reward people for failing, he says. If not, they won't take risks and make breakthroughs.
If you don't reward failure, people will hang on to a doomed idea for fear of the consequences.
That wastes time and saps an organisation's spirit.”

Google is not alone e.g. Grey Advertising NY; but who are the UK companies that reward failure? Perhaps you can respond to this blog and let me know? The norm is probably the belief that people should be showered with rewards for success and failure is not an option, not tolerated or even punished. Teller’s philosophy is that rewarding only success prevents people from taking risks on that new idea which takes the organisation forward. That innovation comes from risk taking and not risk avoidance.

Henry Ford is alleged to have said that “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” Simply, failure is how we learn and learning can be a powerful tool in a successful organisation like Google. Monitoring mistakes and taking the time to learn from them is essential in modern organisations. However, does this mean that if people have a low failure rate they are not helping others learn from their mistakes? Should we reward people who have not learnt from their mistakes or make no mistakes?

Rewarding failure is perceived as being difficult to manage; that it can create an anything goes culture or that employees will come to believe in failure as much as success. In the real world, however, many people are highly motivated to succeed without formal metrics or cash rewards. In an organisational culture where you are only as good as your last failure, you may be less motivated to analyse failures or even reveal them. For it to succeed, all managers need to be frank about their failures and tell others how they overcame them. Remember, organisational learning is a collaborative exercise.

* Secret Google lab 'rewards staff for failure'



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  • Employees who take risks in their respective roles to achieve organisational objectives should be rewarded. Making mistakes is a learning process on the job. Employees who are passionate about what they do and are driven for organisational success must be rewarded either intrinsically or extrinsically. But in the learning process if mistakes persist then they is need for coaching and mentoring to assist the employee to learn from their mistakes.

  • It is important to find out the cause of the mistake before deciding whether to reward. The mistake can be due to the person stretching themselves (learning a new skill and/or working in a new area/way) or it could be caused by lack of resources, poor performance, general ability or other situational factors (at work or in their personal life). As with any reward process it needs to be clear from the start what is being rewarded and why.

  • Anonymous

    It shouldn't be about rewarding failure.  As we know from people like Dan Pink and Alfie Kohn, rewards don't work.

    Instead of simple rewards, the question is much more complex.  How to you create an organisational culture that values and embraces failure as an important part of the innovation process.