Three cheers for failure! The case for giving out Turkey Awards.


Celebrations don’t have to be just for those who succeed. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

Innovate or die. Whether you’re a dinosaur, the New York TimesMicrosoft or any company, it’s impossible to survive without adapting to a changing environment. It’s easy to become complacent and stop taking bold risks once you’re successful. Making things tougher — as a company grows, so does its bureaucracy. The more levels of management, the more opportunity for one person to shoot down an idea that was guaranteed to thrive.

Steve Case, AOL co-founder and Revolution chief executive, frames this problem as a divide between companies that attack, and those that defend.

“Most people and certainly most large companies — incumbents are generally focused on defending the status quo. Attackers are focused on ushering in a new way,” Case explained to me earlier this year. “Fortune 500 companies generally are defenders, trying to grow but in a measured incremental way and most of all trying to focus on not losing what they’ve got. A prevent defense in sports.”

Businesses need to find more ways to encourage innovation, risk-taking and creative thought. Nolan Bushnell explained to Forbes how Atari and Chuck E. Cheese’s, two companies he founded, celebrated failure by giving out a Turkey Award:

If you really want people to empty their pockets — with all their passion and ideas — then they have to know that judicious risks are rewarded, and failure is allowed. There isn’t a business plan or strategy map that can predict every single variable. So, this is when you recognize people with a Turkey Award.

Bushnell shared the example of Chunk E. Cheese’s trash cans designed to make cleaning up fun for kids:

The cans had a slight vacuum that would suck dirty napkins into it. And, they had a place to return your pizza tin in exchange for a token so you could play another game. It seemed like a great idea. But, it turned out to be a disaster. Families at Chuck E. Cheese’s would often order their pizza, eat some, go play games for a while and then come back and eat some more. At normal restaurants, when people leave their table, everyone assumes they are finished. So, other kids would be swooping up pizza tins to feed to Mr. Munch for a quarter.

Despite the resulting “disaster,” Bushnell still felt the work was great thinking, and worthy of recognition. It sounds counter-intuitive to reward failure. But failure is such a strong deterrent that it can prevent us from embracing opportunities. Because no one bats 1.000, great successes can’t happen without some failures. So next time someone you work with fails at something, consider congratulating them for being brave and taking a chance.

Matt McFarland is the editor of Innovations. He's always looking for the next big thing. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.

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