Talking Point: The Disney Institute Blog

Innovative Organizations Must Fail in Order to be Successful

March 25, 2014 by Jeff James, Vice President & General Manager, Disney Institute

“There is no science to creativity. It’s about taking intelligent risks, tolerating mistakes, respecting boundaries, and most important, having the right people in place to make the right choices.” – Bob Iger, Chairman and CEO, The Walt Disney Company 

It is clearly important to take creative risks, especially when the result could be “the big payoff.” However, some leaders forget that taking risks also means mistakes and, potentially, “the big failure”. This creates a paradox because failure is actually an important construct of healthy organizations.

It’s time to recognize “successful failures” as a key ingredient of success.

Organizations must work to foster a collaborative environment where generating risky ideas is both plausible and permissible, and where failures ultimately become successful learning opportunities. In fact, leaders at Pixar know all about the rollercoaster experience of taking risks and celebrating their successes and learning from their failures.

While upgrading the film, Toy Story 2 to a theatrical release, Pixar was unhappy with the film’s quality. Mistakes had been made; the project was failing.  Because the release date was already established, Director John Lasseter, and the story team ended up rewriting the entire plot in only one weekend. Ultimately, the film was a success and became 1999’s third highest grossing film, far surpassing the original.

Operating in an environment where a certain level of failure is permissible, recognizing that the failure occurred, learning from that failure, and then trying again is vital to the ability to adapt after a failure. What are some of the key lessons Pixar has learned over the years?

  1. Take risks on teams and ideas, knowing that some will not work out. As Ed Catmull notes in a recent Fast Company article, “We only lose from this if we dont respond to the failures. If we respond, and we think it through and figure out how to move ahead, then we’re learning from it. That’s what Pixar is.”
  2. Promote a risk-tolerant culture by recognizing that mistakes can be used as opportunities to help groups become more self-aware. You can’t orchestrate these kinds of opportunities, but when they do happen, go in and use them as a time to discuss how things should work.
  3. Recognize that relationships are strengthened by going through these mistakes and problems, creating a culture where people more readily jump in and help each other.
  4. Sometimes, launch an imperfect project and treat it as an opportunity to enhance later on and stimulate future innovations.

A critical aspect of organizational trust is that the “successful failure” is consistently, authentically, and visibly practiced. Use these agile skills to enable your team to take creative ideas and run with them with less fear of failure.

How does your organization create an environment that fosters successful failures?


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Posted in Business Excellence | Tagged Creativity and Innovation, Creativity, Creative Organizations, Collaboration, Collaborative Environment, Disney Pixar, The Walt Disney Company, Bob Iger, John Lasseter, Jeff James

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