"Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough." - Elon Musk
I stared at this quote for the last few minutes as the cursor blinked on and off on my laptop screen. I have been wondering if I agree with the entire quote. Does it represent reality? Should it represent reality? I need to parse it out and dissect it to see if I can acknowledge any truth in its sentiments. Allow me to walk you through my logic.
I can say that I agree with the first sentence. Failure is always an option, a possibility, a reality we will experience. All of us have experienced failure in one form or another. It is the second sentence that, at my first reading, was controversial. The first half of the second sentence suggests that there is a course by which we might not fail. I do not think that is the case. Certainly there are “safe” routes that seek to minimize the risk of failure. Many are prone to pursue this path. They seek to recreate experiences and write policies so that what has worked in the past is repeated and standardized. The “let’s not do anything that might fail” philosophy is almost as well documented as the literature on organisations that failed to accomplish their goals because they were afraid to fail. Ed Catmull does a great job of describing this “fear of failure” as it existed in the Walt Disney Studios before Pixar and the Walt Disney company became intertwined.
“At a certain point at Disney, ‘There seemed to be undue emphasis on preventing errors; even when it came to something as small as office décor, no one dared put themselves out there, or to make a mistake.’”
“. . . the leaders of Disney Animation placed a higher value on error prevention than anything else. The employees knew there would be repercussions if mistakes were made, so the primary goal was never to make any . . . But seeking to eliminate failure was in this instance – and, I would argue, most instances – precisely the wrong thing to do.”
Ed Catmull and Elon Musk are both getting at this attitude which suggests there could be a “non-failure route” to innovation and they indicate that it is a myth. Musk is saying that we must have failures and perhaps lots of them to get to a place of innovation. Catmull says something similar in Creativity Inc. So, why am I still struggling with the overall meaning of what Musk is saying?
The crux of the issue comes down to whether or not we think that innovation is a legitimate goal and a high value. After all, we might well do without some of the innovations our world has achieved. The world was, in some ways, quite satisfactory before the invention of the atomic bomb and was significantly less safe after that particular innovation. Some might say that the innovative development of the internet has had both positive and deleterious impacts upon our world. Was this type of innovation a desirable outcome? What of the invention of the electric lightbulb, an innovation which only followed after a great many failures? Despite the fact that one might be able to point to some negative consequences of the light bulb, it would be hard to argue that this innovation has not been of great benefit to humans around the world.
The kind of innovation to which Elon Musk has been working could conceivably have some negative consequences. It could also offer great benefits to humanity. The reality is that humans have been innovating for a long time and they show no signs of deviating from a trajectory of innovation. If innovation is a worthy goal, then the statement by Musk has a significant chance of being an accurate representation of how one should proceed. If innovation is seen as negative and maintenance of current systems is a greater goal, then Musk’s statement is wrong.
Maintenance of working systems can be a realistic goal; but maintenance tends to only work within closed systems where things do not change. As soon as one introduces external changes, an organisation must adjust to maintain balance within a new state of equilibrium. Whether we like it or not, our world is changing; and right now it is changing rapidly. There is good evidence that the organisations that will continue to work will be those that are nimble and can rapidly change with the surrounding environment. Those that stick to policies written during times of stability will find that they are ill-equipped for the new state of the world and will find themselves falling out of the new equilibrium. Thus, organisations must, at the very least, respond to the innovation which is saturating the present world.
Some companies and organisations will not only survive in an ever-changing world, they will themselves become leaders in innovation and will set the direction of that innovation. These are the ones that shape an environment and shape themselves to fit the environment into which they are metamorphosing. They are prepared for the world into which they arrive. Such change does not come easy. It takes experimentation, rigorous learning from failures and successes, and innovation that remains true to the original purposes of the organisation. In short, such organisations experience failure, learn from that failure, develop a better experiment, and try again in a reasonably ordered fashion, until they succeed. Success and failure are simply two potential results for the continued experimentation. Success, or failure, will still mean that there is work to be done.
The winking cursor has run its course to the bottom of the page and I find myself staring at it once again. The sobering conclusion of this article is that I have convinced myself that Elon Musk might be right. "Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough." I am willing to innovate and I am willing to fail. I commit to learning as I succeed or fail and, by God’s grace, I choose to innovate and succeed in the mission toward which I am called. Elon Musk may not understand that bit about God’s grace, but I would suggest that it is a vital ingredient in the process. I am thankful for its ever-present illumination upon me.
Catmull, Ed. Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the way of True Inspiration. Toronto: Random House of Canada Limited, 2014.
 (Catmull 2014) Location 3790 in Kindle Version
 (Catmull 2014) Location 3961-3965 in Kindle Version