In a recent keynote speech to tech gurus in the British retail industry, Amazon’s global innovation chief Paul Misener spent time focusing on what most leaders set out to completely avoid: failure. Or, rather, more than that – the importance of failure.

“It’s okay to be wrong, it’s okay to make mistakes – it’s OK to fail,” he stressed, pointing out: “At Amazon, we have a lot of experience with failure. We have failed many times – some very public, colossal ones, some private. But we are failing and we will continue to fail. Many times we will fail going forward, I’m confident of that.”

Among the prime examples of Amazon projects that weren’t quite on target, Misener highlighted zShops – a storefront for other retailers under Amazon’s digital umbrella – and Auctions, which aimed to challenge eBay. But he asserted that the lessons from those “experiments” had helped to pave the way for more successful ventures, such as Amazon Marketplace.

Misener said: “It turns out now that fully half of the things sold on Amazon are not sold by Amazon but through other partners. It’s introduced a new class of customer for Amazon – the seller customer.” He noted: “It was this willingness to fail and trying to get things right eventually … that led us to this very beneficial way of doing business. If you’re not willing to experiment you'll never actually innovate – and if you want to experiment you have to be able to fail.”

Misener added: “This willingness to fail, it’s a big deal. I get that [it’s] hard to adopt, because you’ve got all sorts of people – maybe your boss, maybe an investor, maybe the press – looking for failures. That’s not a very fun thing to go through. No one likes to fail. But if you accept that failure is necessary for innovation, it's actually quite important and it becomes a lot easier to deal with.”

How can leaders create an enabling environment for their employees to fail on noble terms?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's CEO Phil James says: “One of the most important aspects of service delivery is service recovery – in other words, when something doesn’t go according to plan, the first thought is: how do you deal with it? When we explore this area of learning from failure, the most constructive message is that it isn’t so much that a mistake has been made. It’s about how you respond to the situation in which you’ve found yourself, and how you put it right.

“Most leaders would naturally feel awkward about even having made a mistake in the first place, and would be reluctant to have to begin any process from that position. But it is very much about nurturing a culture in which you ask, ‘Here we are – now, how do we move forward from this scenario? And more importantly, how do we learn from it?’”

James adds: “Learning from the failure is the crucial skill here – not turning to questions such as how it happened, how you got there and who’s to blame. The same proactive and positive attitude that goes into the founding of a company, or the beginning of a business venture, must also be on hand to address any situation in which a company or venture suffers a setback. You can recover. And you can put things right.”

For further thoughts on how to learn from mistakes rather than fall prey to blame culture, check out these learning resources from the Institute

Image of Amazon Echo device courtesy of pianodiaphragm, via Shutterstock