How The Fear of Failure Suffocates Innovation


One of the leaders in our session yesterday shared a powerful strategy her school has recently employed.

Instead of beginning their meetings sharing their successes, they instead share their failures.

Their approach is sure to lead to improved outcomes and a better place to work.  The “perfect” business is exhausting!  In schools, we can be slow to innovate because of our reluctance to try things we aren’t already good at, aren’t sure how to do, or are out of our comfort zone.

This isn’t just a subtle difference in approach or a minor attitudinal difference.  The “fear of failure” can be an overwhelming force that slows down growth, innovation and achievement.  In short, our obsession with never being wrong can lead to us falling short of getting things right at all.

The children and adolescents growing up in our schools are citizens of a world that hardly any of their teachers experienced during their formative years.  The world has changed, the accessibility to information has changed, and the speed and volume of information is head-spinning.  Yet, some of our teachers haven’t changed, or not nearly enough.  While there are many reasons for their reticence, it’s likely that the fear of failing is one of them, and the school’s culture is an accomplice in keeping that fear alive.  The challenge within that is  the school’s culture runs through those same teachers!

So, here you arrive.  Captain Innovation.  The Fountain of Ideas.  The Change Leader.  The people who brought you on board to lead the school want you to be innovative, but until you can change the culture about failure, your progress will be measured.


Changing your school’s culture is all about changing the way that the adults who work there think.  Before you are able to do that, you need to change the way that they feel, and that’s climate.  You need a climate that supports experimentation, trying new things, and a joy in the process before you can have a culture of innovation.

What do you do as the leader to produce such a climate?  The school mentioned in the opening paragraph is a good example. Here are some other ideas that might help you in your quest for a respect for failure and its ability to teach all of us:

  • Clarify your beliefs about learning. While most everyone believes that learning comes from experience and through a process, at schools we place a high value on “perfection” and we can give mixed signals about what really matters.  Our grading systems can be an example of that.  Unfortunately, the emphasis can be on the grade and not the learning behind the grade.  If you take a stab at aligning grades with learning (mastery, anyone?) you will make failure a more valued thing.
  • Honor and recognize the experimenters.   As long as we put the people who make a 97 on a test of recall on the highest step on the medal stand, we are de-valuing the students (and their teachers) who may have learned the most and done the best work.  It probably isn’t the right time to ignore  the folks who make all As (and it probably isn’t the right thing to do either) but what you can do is recognize those who are learning through experimentation.  The scientists; the risk-takers; the innovators.  Don’t forget that achievement comes in lots of different packages.  If you really want to innovate, you have to acknowledge the process, including the failing, that leads to discovery.
  • Guarantee safety for those willing to be vulnerable.   The quickest way to shut down innovation for a long time is to punish those who try new ideas that don’t work on the first run.  If you indeed are going to ask (push?) teachers to try new things, be innovative, do something new, you are going to need to have a safe place for them to land if it doesn’t work.
  • Share your own experience.  Learning rarely happens in the absence of vulnerability.  To really embrace the space of learning, you have to admit that, regarding the subject at hand, you don’t know.  It’s much easier to talk about what we do know, and to put “what we don’t know” in a basket of things that are out of reach.  That attitude (perfect in what I know and perfectly happy to stop there) prevents learning.  You have to try new things, and to get your faculty to do that, you have to get out on the limb, talk about your failures, and be willing to be seen as less than perfect.  If you can do that, you are on your way to changing perspectives about learning… and failing.
  • Raise the value of persistence.  Persistence is the pathway to understanding failure and embracing the possibilities of learning.  If you are going to move out of the “perfect business” into one where failure is embraced, be prepared for some pushback.  The pushback will come when things don’t work smoothly from the beginning.  That’s where we lose the people with the least amount of commitment to growth, which means you have to intercede with a message of persistence.


When we lead our schools in a bold, daring manner in which we face and fight our fears and focus on our students, we will gain partners in our quest who will also bring others in. Like nearly everything good that can happen in your school, this also begins with… you.





2 thoughts on “How The Fear of Failure Suffocates Innovation

  1. Powerful words, my friend!! Thank you!

    On Thu, Mar 16, 2017 at 7:36 AM Principal Matters! wrote:

    > Principal Matters! posted: ” One of the leaders in our session > yesterday shared a powerful strategy her school has recently employed. > Instead of beginning their meetings sharing their successes, they instead > share their failures. Their approach is sure to lead to improved o” >

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