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Innovation is Only Failure If You Don’t Learn

It seems everyone in the accounting profession is talking about innovation these days, and for good reason. Innovation pushes us past the status quo, allows us to take advantage of new technology and processes, and ensures we’re providing the highest value to our clients.

Yet, innovation can be scary. Accountants tend to lean toward being risk-averse. They like to do the research, decide what the numbers tell them, and formulate a perfect plan of action. Unfortunately, innovation doesn’t work that way. Innovative firms don’t follow best practices; they create new ones. And as any inventor or innovator knows, sometimes that process involves failure.

Failure as an innovation strategy

Failure is a crucial ingredient for successful innovation. The difference between successful innovators and unsuccessful ones is the ability to fail forward.

So what does failing forward mean? It means learning from your setbacks and making the necessary adjustments to move on and succeed.

When you fail forward, failure isn’t fatal. It’s just an opportunity to start again, with better knowledge of what hasn’t worked in the past so that you can try a new approach.

How to overcome the fear of failure

Nobody enjoys failing. In fact, it can feel terrible. That’s why so many people in the accounting profession avoid it.

If you want to start using failure to your advantage, here are a couple of places to start.

Acknowledge the fear

Recognize that the reason you fear innovation is really a fear of failure, and identify the source.

Are you a perfectionist that is so worried about being humiliated that you don’t try new things? Do you over-identify with failure and internalize them as character defects? Are you worried that other people in your firm will judge you for taking a risk that doesn’t pan out?

Getting to the root of why you’re risk-averse and naming it takes away some of its power.

Reward good failures

Business leaders tend to focus on results: revenue growth, profit margins, cost savings, etc. While these are useful metrics for running a business or serving clients, they’re not always the best indicators for whether your innovation strategy is working.

Rather than focusing on results in your innovation strategy, look for ways to reward good failures.

Good failures are ones that your team learns from – those that bring knowledge and experience to your team. If you identify what went wrong, apply it as a lesson learned and get back on track, that’s a good failure on the road to innovation.

In the white paper Learning from Failure in Innovation: Turning Setbacks into Advantages from The Warton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Paul J.H. Schoemaker, research director of the Mack Center for Technological Innovation, told a story of one company that created an award for good mistakes. Rather than allowing mistakes to be swept under the rug, the company’s president presented a “Golden Egg Award” at its monthly manager’ meetings, which was essentially gold spray paint on a plastic Easter egg.

As Schoemaker explained it,

“At each monthly meeting, a manager would be asked to discuss a mistake they had made and what they had learned from it. If they explained their mistake well, they were given the Golden Egg Award until the next meeting, when another manager would be selected. At first no one wanted to volunteer – the equivalent of having egg on your face. Over time, though, sharing mistakes (and receiving the Golden Egg) became one of the most popular activities during the monthly meetings.”

That’s an excellent way to encourage strategic failure and avoid a culture of perfectionism.

Fostering a culture of innovation in your firm won’t happen by accident. It’s created daily by what firm leaders recognize and reward. If you want innovation to be a priority, understand that failure is a necessary step on the path to success and start rewarding the people who are willing to take risks. Only then will you and your team be truly empowered to think outside the box, experiment and generate new successful paths.


Do you need help getting firm leaders in alignment on your innovation strategy?

Boomer Technology Consulting can help you prioritize projects and ensure they support the firm’s overall vision and strategic plan. Complete an interest form today to begin fast-tracking your firm’s success.


Marc Staut, Shareholder and Chief Innovation & Information Officer at Boomer Consulting, Inc., helps meet the growing needs of CPA firms by leveraging his experience to provide strategic technology assessments, planning, visioning and coaching. He feels that “technology should be an enabler – something that’s approachable, aligned with and integral to the success of each firm.” Marc is a regular speaker, author and panelist on technology in the accounting profession, cloud computing, mobile technology, leadership and vision. 


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