The Science of Work Culture: Freedom to Fail

As a late convert to Twitter, I’m a huge fan of the platform’s seamless connection to people and their disparate ideas, perspectives and stories that would otherwise be difficult to access without spending every day glued to the Internet or public library bookshelves. It was through Twitter that I was introduced to the work of Ron Friedman, a University of Rochester trained psychologist and expert on human motivation. 

I was particularly drawn to his latest book, The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace, not only because I was compelled by the subject matter, but because the subtitle and cover of his book looked and sounded remarkably similar to my co-authored book, Magnetic: The Art and Science of Engagement, published in 2013.

I was intrigued by the fact that graphic designers at two different publishing houses ended up choosing a nearly identical image and layout to illustrate what are, in essence, books about transforming workplaces into cultures of excellence and high performance. Regardless of any coincidence, for those of you seeking to create work environments that foster creativity, nurture innovation, support high productivity, and attract and retain top talent, Friedman’s book is a worthwhile read (and so is Magnetic, if I can toot a horn here).

Magnetic Cover.jpg

Friedman assimilates a significant amount of current scientific research on human motivation and shares it with his readers in an easy-to-digest format that can be directly applied to the workplace. Over the course of this and a few future posts, I intend to share some of Friedman’s writings that I've found to be particularly germane to the cultural environment.

Embracing Failure 

The exponential growth of entrepreneurship and innovation as the business model of the 21st century has generated a lot of talk about embracing failure as the key to success. Besides being the mantra of Silicon Valley, what’s really behind this concept?

According to Friedman, it has to do with the nature of creativity. 

To paraphrase the author (who is summarizing the work of social psychologist Dean Keith Simonton), highly creative people are marked by their broad range of interests and ability to combine incongruent bits of information and ideas to create something new. They also tend to work harder, generate more ideas and produce more than the average person, both feats and flops. They push at the boundaries of their current abilities and persevere in the face of failure. 

Organizations that bring out the creative best among their employees help them to focus on “the possibility of gain” rather than “the possibility of loss.” Friedman speaks of this in clinical terms of “approach motivation” versus “avoidance motivation,” both of which have psychological and physiological influences. Because the former concentrates on achieving positive outcomes, it supports blue sky thinking and experimentation. Conversely, the latter fixates on preventing negative outcomes, and thus results in narrowed perspectives that dampen creativity. “When avoiding failure is a primary focus,” Friedman says, “the work isn’t just more stressful; it’s a lot harder to do.” 

Innovative organizations make allowances for mistakes, which over the long run, “can elevate the quality of [employee] performance.” Friedman points to research by Harvard University professor Amy Edmundson, who found workplaces that didn’t penalize staff for making mistakes fostered environments where team members felt safe to openly admit and discuss errors. This enables learning and “turns failure into progress.”

“The best way to minimize failure,” reports Friedman, “is to embrace it with open arms.”

That seems easy to understand in the abstract, but how does this manifest in the cultural workplace? And what happens when an important project turns out to be a dud?

Case Study: Greensboro Science Center

These are questions I posed to Glenn Dobrogosz, executive director of the Greensboro Science Center (GSC) in Greensboro, NC. The GSC is part zoo, part aquarium and part natural science museum. It’s also one of the six museums profiled in Magnetic.

Dobrogosz emphasizes the importance of fostering a culture that gives employees both “permission and freedom to ideate and create.” Such autonomy and authority “builds alliances of trust with staff,” he says, “who then come with ideas to solve problems. We reward risk takers and give the freedom to fail to individuals who show themselves — by their attitude, desire to invent new things and belief in our mission — to be worth the risk.” 

Last year, Dobrogosz assembled an internal group called the Innovation Committee, comprising six senior and middle management staff members who bring expertise in exhibit design, education, technology, operations, plus financial and human resources. Acting much like angel investors, they vet new program and project ideas, ask critical questions, and discuss organizational objectives and mission delivery “with brutal honesty” to determine if proposals should be greenlighted. He outlined three primary review criteria: (1) Does the proposed idea offer a competitive edge to GSC and enable it to be first in doing something new or in a new way? (2) Is it fully aligned with the Center’s vision for the future? And (3) does GSC have the time and resources to do the project well?

Dive bombing with the penguins at Greensboro Science Center. Image credit: Cambridge Seven Associates, Inc.

Dive bombing with the penguins at Greensboro Science Center. Image credit: Cambridge Seven Associates, Inc.

This approach has led to a number of highly successful new enterprises, among them, the SciQuarium, which opened in June 2013. A 22,000 sq. ft. extension to the Science Center, it features exhibits dedicated to species that live in diverse aquatic ecosystems, including predatory sharks, stingrays and moray eels, as well as cute penguins and otters. Dobrogosz noted that the SciQuarium was a huge gamble, not only because its $8.7 million price tag was financed by a public bond, but because no one had ever before built an inland aquarium in North Carolina. Fortunately, this risk returned reward, and the SciQuarium attracted over 430,000 visitors in its first year of operation, outperforming GSC's previous highest grossing exhibit by 35 percent. It also garnered GSC its first $1 million gift from a patron wowed by its potential.

But what about that dud?

Dobrogosz described a new orangutan exhibit envisioned as an extension of GSC’s Animal Discovery program, allowing visitors to experience primate adaptations in a natural environment. For a number of reasons, the effort didn't pan out. “Regional leaders and potential donors didn't connect with GSC doing ape research (cognitive behavior research) as part of our mission," he said. "And an MBA study showed limited ROI due to the cost of taking care of very husbandry-intense animals." 

Even though a lot of energy and resources had been expended, GSC scrapped the plans, without repercussion to anyone involved. The staff kept at it, though, trying to connect the public experience with the animal experience – and a new concept soon evolved.

They developed the idea for a treetop adventure course that mimics animal behavior. Sky Wild, which is currently under construction, will feature seven zip lines over 30-45 feet in the air, with 60 events that correspond to animal behavior, such as frogs hopping among lily pads, and gibbons (a kind of ape) brachiating* in the trees. (*A new word for me, too, which means using the arms to swing from branch to branch.)

Greensboro Science Center's new Sky Wild treetop adventure course. Image credit: Greensboro Science Center.

Greensboro Science Center's new Sky Wild treetop adventure course. Image credit: Greensboro Science Center.

Dobrogosz and his team have learned one of the abiding lessons about success and failure that Friedman recounts in his book. They innately understand the importance of what the author refers to as “[mining] the failure for insight…[to] improve [the] next attempt.” Friedman asserts, “The more solutions you generate, the more likely you are to stumble upon a winning combination.” In the case of Sky Wild, GSC is pretty certain they've stumbled correctly — or more appropriately, zipped — though they won't know for certain until the new exhibit opens next spring.

Actor and independent film impresario Robert Redford recently said it best: “Not taking a risk is a risk…[and] it's important to fail…[even though] failure's not fun...I grew up in a world that said failure is the end of the road. It's not. It's a step along the road.”


Friedman, Ron, PhD. The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace. New York: Penguin Group, 2014. Kindle file (part 1, chapter 1).

Phone interview with Glenn Dobrogosz, 23 Dec 2014.