Should Companies Require Employees to Fail?

Should Companies Require Employees to Fail?

Some companies include failure as a performance metric, but establishing a culture of innovation is a better inflection point for success.

Media executive Jason Seiken is known for taking the Washington Post online and for turning PBS into a digital media powerhouse. Several years ago, he wrote an article, How I Got My Team To Fail More, which described his efforts at PBS to create an entrepreneurial culture by requiring members of the digital team to fail. Seiken wrote:

“Soon after arriving at PBS, I called the digital team into a conference room and announced we were ripping up everyone’s annual performance goals and adding a new metric. Failure. With a twist: ‘If you don’t fail enough times during the coming year,’ I told every staffer, ‘you’ll be downgraded.’ Because if you’re not failing enough, you’re playing it safe. The idea was to deliver a clear message: Move fast. Iterate fast. Be entrepreneurial. Don’t be afraid that if you stretch and sprint you might break things. Executive leadership has your back.”

Five years after introducing the failure metric to PBS, unique visitors to doubled, and in each of the first seven months of 2013, was the most-visited network TV site (beating out ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox). Additionally, video views on and’s mobile platforms rose 11,200%.

Was requiring failure the key to success? Not all those who read the post believed so. Rather, many readers suggested that the creation of a culture of innovation, one supported by executive leadership, was the inflection point for success.

The idea that innovation in business or an entrepreneurial culture is brought about by leadership is one put forth by many, including Robert J. Herbold. In his book What’s Holding You Back: 10 Bold Steps that Define Gutsy Leaders, Herbold submits that it is the responsibility of a leader to establish a culture of innovation. That is, a leader must communicate a goal of innovation to his/her employees; encourage employees to aspire to innovation; reward innovation; and instill a sense of urgency.

I see innovation and entrepreneurism as the goal and not failure. For this reason I believe the focus should not be on failure, but instead should be establishing a culture which supports innovation. Yes risk-taking and failure are likely components of innovation, but they are just that — components. “Requiring failure” may be sexy, but I believe supporting innovation is more likely to be the game changer.

What do you think? Is failure a requirement for success? Should leadership focus on encouraging failure?

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