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How Google's secretive lab innovates: rewarding failure

Posting in Technology
How does Google develop so many working concepts for ideas that previous only existed in science fiction?

BBC reveals that innovation within Google X, the secretive Google laboratory responsible for some of the most impressive innovations at Google -- like driverless carsaugmented reality glasses (now Google Glass), and smart contacts that monitor glucose levels -- is possible because of a counterintuitive practice: rewarding failure. 

Conventional wisdom says that companies should reward employees for doing well, for meeting a quota or achieving a month goal. But for this branch of Google, looking to develop world-changing, disruptive concepts, that model doesn't work. Employees can't be afraid to come up with lots of bad ideas, as Astro Teller, with Google X, explains to BBC:

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.

Finding new transformational ideas is like sending out a team of scouts to explore uncharted terrain for new mountains to climb, he says.

"If you shame them when they come back, if you tell them that they've failed you because they didn't find a mountain, no matter how diligently they looked for or how cleverly they looked for it, those scouts will quit your company."

For a large company like Google it's a smart why to encourage innovation, especially since innovation can actually decline after a company goes public

Research seems to agree that traditional workplace models could be a hinderance to innovation. One study showed that creativity dips when workers think they are being watched and evaluated while working on a task.

Rewarding failure is a strategy that more corporate executives should consider, as execs say their companies are reducing their expectations for innovation.

A few other companies are looking for ways to incorporate the practice. As Wall Street Journal reports, companies are using tactics from bad idea awards to no-meeting days that focus on employee creativity. As Judy Estrin, an author on innovation, explains to WSJ, rewarding failure doesn't mean rewarding people who are doing a bad job:

"If employees try something that was worth trying and fail, and if they are open about it, and if they learn from that failure, that is a good thing."
Photo: Flickr/Spiros Vathis

— By on January 27, 2014, 12:32 PM PST

Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure