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The Human Factor

Failure: Vital for Creativity

Finding ways that don’t work is not failure

By Fritz Pinnock, PhD

For creativity to exist, there must be failure! In other words, instances of creativity are very often preceded by the possibility of (or actual) failure. This astounding discovery provides a unique perspective on managing people and, more importantly, managing ourselves.

Creativity is a coveted asset in the workplace. Managers need creative and energetic team members who can solve problems through innovation and use ordinary resources to do extraordinary things. Once managers learn how to motivate individuals, they are better able to have a positive impact on overall productivity.

How can they do this? They can reap rewards by accepting that failure is essential to creativity. I will use three articles recently published in the Harvard Journal to support this claim. They were written by writers who each made a similar discovery about the undeniable link between failure and creativity.

Creative Thinking

To think creatively is to think actively with a goal in mind. It is about directing thought processes towards achieving something specific through an alternative (and often unconventional and refreshing) approach.

Creative thinking is not a leisure activity. Neither does it happen unintentionally.

In the article by Peter Simms entitled ‘The No. 1 Enemy of Creativity: Fear of Failure’, creative thinking is framed in the context of an enabling force which fuels independence, entrepreneurship and an enterprising attitude. Creative thinkers design concepts, not just products.

Creativity in organisations

Creativity within organisations is as vital as water to the human body. Creativity is what ensures survival of organisations. The following example illustrates the importance of creativity in organisations.

If you’ve heard of Six Sigma, then you will know that it is a widely used management tool in both regional and international companies. I believe, however, that it is, in effect, the antithesis of innovation and entrepreneurial discovery. It is far more profitable to decrease dependency on strict work mode formulas and explore new ways of getting the job done. A task-oriented approach uses creativity as a driving force.

Role of failure

Within organisations, failure is feared, often avoided and seldom entertained. However, instances of failure can serve as teaching opportunities for mentors because they mould junior staff and trainees. It is useful for setting goals and achieving them, motivating people and pushing the boundaries of conventional ideals.

It is because we fear failure that we push towards success. We set SMART objectives because we want a practical way of avoiding failure and measuring success. The possibility of failing generally keeps us focused and resilient; able to clear obstacles, despite unfavourable conditions, in order to achieve success. 

Our personal feelings about failure influence how we view it within the workplace, because the work environment is an extension of ourselves. We carry our value systems, our religious and cultural beliefs and our fears into the work environment. All of these together form our psychological blueprint and are embedded in us from childhood. On a personal level, we fear failure because we were never taught how to accept it, embrace it or use it to fuel our creative sensibilities. We therefore believe that it is wrong to fail and that failure is the end of the creative journey rather than a pit stop on the route to ultimate success.

As a result, we never learned how to plan for recovery after inevitable failures. Instead we perpetuate the sense of stagnation that failure often encourages. However, we can learn to use failures to our advantage, if we change our thinking from ‘ordinary’ to ‘creative’ – although, admittedly, some of us are better at this than others.

Simms believes that “entrepreneurs …think of failure the way most people think of learning.” 

‘You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs’ is a truism often repeated. Even the most expert entrepreneurs make mistakes in the process of discovering new approaches, opportunities or business models. Many have admitted this is inevitable in the process of progress. Simms uses Howard Schultz, an American businessman and writer, as a prime example.


Schultz has an impressive profile as an entrepreneur and is best known as the chairman and CEO of Starbucks and a former owner of the Seattle SuperSonics basketball team. He co-founded the investment group Maveron in 1998 with Dan Levitan. He also started Il Giornale in Seattle, the company that Schultz used to later buy the original Starbucks brand and assets. Il Giornale had non-stop opera music playing, menus written in Italian and no chairs. This concept proved very successful as the popularity of the business grew tremendously. When asked about this creative design, he admits that “we had to make a lot of mistakes” before discovering a model that worked.

If we are to achieve success, we cannot be afraid to fail or ashamed of failing. Rather, we must learn how to harness the positive spin-offs and tailor them to suit our organisational needs.

Creativity and failure

The relationship between creativity and failure is reflected in our daily activities but is not always readily identifiable. 

1. Fear of failure can help us to solve the right problems

Simms states that, for him, the most important insight to be gained from creative thinking is learning how to solve the right problem. “You have to make sure you’ve defined the right problem before you try to solve it. So you act like an anthropologist to understand human needs and problems before jumping to solutions.” If we do not adopt this approach, we will waste valuable time and money on the insignificant things while totally neglecting the core issues. We would have essentially failed to solve the right problem. And if we are to evade failure, we ought to apply a key tenet of creative thinking, which is decisive thinking. This helps us to target our efforts towards time-efficient problem solving.

2. Failure can be a launching pad for second attempts

“I have not failed, I have just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” This popular quote from Albert Einstein best explains the relevance of delayed success. When we do not get the desired results on the first attempt, we are compelled to try different strategies on our second, third or 100th attempt. This makes us more creative. And this is especially important within organisations.

3. Makes you more flexible

Being a more flexible professional means being able to adapt to different environments yet still functioning effectively. This is not limited to physical space. We often find ourselves in less than desirable emotional environments because of failures, but we still have to function professionally. Having failed multiple times, we are increasingly better able to deal with emotional discomfort in a way that ensures we remain productive. However, in order for this approach to work, we must not spend too much time reflecting on past failures. If your internalised view of failure is negative, then you disempower yourself by disconnecting from your innate creativity. Sadly, this is the way too many of us process reality. We have been programmed to think this way by the educational system, which is focused rigidly on ‘correct answers’ and standardised testing. This must change and it must begin with managers learning to accept their own shortcomings and exercising flexibility in moving forward. Modern management systems must become far more adaptive in order to not be crippled by early failure.

4. Encourages us to take risks

In Teresa Amabile’s article ‘Is Management the Enemy of Creativity?’ we see that there is a crisis in corporate management.

“While the basis of competition has shifted decisively to innovation, most management tools and approaches are still geared to exploit established ideas rather than explore new ones.” This safe approach is restrictive and debilitating. 

“Perhaps that’s why corporate acquisitions have reached such high levels over the past decade. Creativity takes root in entrepreneurial ventures; and big companies, unable to cultivate it within their own walls, end up buying it instead.”

Investing resources such as time, compassion and money in employees is risky, especially when the creative returns are uncertain; but it is a risk worth taking.

5. Pending failure teaches us how to manage pressure

Amabile wrote another article entitled ‘Creativity Under the Gun’ (co-authored by colleagues Constance Hadley and Steven Kramer) which captures a case study of innovation brought about by time constraints. They write: “The lauded design firm Ideo has put its innovative spin on personal computers, medical equipment, automotive electronics, toys and even animatronic movie robots — and many of the new designs for those products were drawn up in three months or less.” This is remarkable work, done in a short timeframe. But it had to be done. If not, this would have constituted failure. Pending failure makes us capable of using pressure as a management technique to spur people on to great leaps of insight and urge them to tap into their productive reserve. Generally, organisations benefit from creativity and this is amplified when there is actual, pending or feared failure. The onus is on management to use failure as an opportunity to grow and to build organisational creativity. And, we are best advised to encourage others to do likewise.