An Innovative Culture Celebrating Failure

Good educators set high expectations for their students and work to develop intrinsic motivation. They aim for their students to take ownership of their learning and provide support for them to achieve high levels of performance. In this same way, transformational leaders engage in practice that “raises the level of motivation and morality in both the leader and the follower” (Northouse, 2006, p. 176). The transformational leadership demonstrated by Astro Teller and employees at X, exemplifies these very behaviors.

In this video, Astro Teller, CEO of Alphabet’s X, describes how he has worked to develop a culture of innovation in which employees strive toward audacious goals that literally make the unthinkable reality. Teller initially worked to develop a culture of innovation by rewarding employees for abandoning unpromising projects and establishing an audacious goals award, but ultimately this culture has become so ingrained that it is the employees who continue to raise the bar higher.

Our usual social norms in setting OKRs (Objectives and Key Results), Teller explains, leave both management and employees dissatisfied. Managers want their employees to have higher goals, while employees feel the goal isn’t truly theirs. This leads to mediocre performance and failure is taboo. At X failure is celebrated. When teams stop a project, their work is admired by others as employees move onto something better and more fulfilling. As a result, an environment has been created where employees feel free to talk openly about their projects. This transformational leadership and culture has lead to the creation of technologies that were once unimaginable. Take a look at some of the work from X here.

Failure in education frequently brings on sanctions. What would celebrating failure in our schools and systems look like? Are teachers setting audacious goals to bring about true change or safe ones to meet a contractual requirement? While we won’t be perfecting self-driving cars, we can work towards setting more audacious goals and admitting when projects are headed down a dead-end path. These changes could lead to greater growth among our students and focus our time on more meaningful work.

Resources:

Northouse, P. (2006). Leadership: Theory and Practice (4th ed.).  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

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