Failure is a fact of life. We see it everywhere in our daily lives—from a broken dishwasher to the inevitable breakdowns of technology. Innovation and failure are tightly tied together; one helps create the other.
Innovation is about trying new things and taking risks, which inevitably involves mistakes. However, many organizations want to embrace their innovative spirit but fear the consequences of failure.
In this article, I’ll explore why failure is such an important part of innovation processes, why people avoid failure, tips for creating a culture that embraces failure and how I’ve used failure to improve client outcomes.
The Taboo Of Failure
We have this idea that the only way to succeed is to be perfect, so when we make a mistake or fall short of our goals, it can feel like a personal failure. But if you look at success stories in science, business and other industries—especially those involving innovation—you’ll find that they’re full of mistakes. Thomas Edison is often referred to as the inventor of the lightbulb; more precisely, he was the inventor of the carbon filament that could light up a glass bulb for 40 hours. It was rumoured that Edison had 2,000 failed attempts before he found the carbon filament that worked; the lightbulb as we know it today was the result of his building on many inventors’ failed efforts over 50 years.
Edison, and many others like the Wright Brothers, didn’t start with all the right answers; they learned from their mistakes until they had something great on their hands (and sometimes even after).
So, what exactly does it mean for an experiment or project to fail? It could mean failing to reach your goal or missing out on your intended outcome—but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As long as you understand why something failed, there’s nothing wrong with taking time off from one experiment so that you can try another approach later on. You might make more progress by changing direction than sticking with what wasn’t working.
My team had an experience taking on a new client through a partner where we quickly learned that we had gone into the engagement with incorrect expectations. Our interpretation from the partner was that this client was ready for big changes, so we’d gone in with the mindset of “find what isn’t working and figure out how to fix it.” In reality, this organization had a big project on their hands but already had a plan for what they wanted to execute. In a very short period, this partnership led to the removal of most of our team! This could have very easily been a failed project had we not taken the time to work with our client and sort out what had gone wrong. Without the innovation our remaining team displayed in repairing the trust of our client, we would have failed them completely. But without this experience, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to evaluate our internal process for taking on new clients to ensure a smooth onboarding in the future and an effective partnership for both parties.
How To Embrace Failure In Your Organization
1. Set up an environment that encourages new ideas.
We know from Design Thinking principles that attacking complex problems from different angles will often yield better results. The same is true for innovation. The more ways you approach a problem, the greater your chances of finding an innovative solution. This means setting up a collaborative environment.
In a collaborative environment:
• No one person or team is responsible for coming up with ideas.
• Ideas are shared with the expectation of building on them as a team.
• Lessons learned from previous ideas are applied without squashing the new idea (this one is tougher than it sounds!)
2. Test ideas with the anticipation of failure.
Let’s face it; we don’t learn much when things go well. So start testing viable ideas and let them fail. The more you know about each idea, the closer you’ll get to an innovative solution.
For this to work, you need to create a culture where failure is expected and accepted. This means communicating with your team that failure is not only okay but actually necessary for success. Encourage sharing mistakes and lessons learned so that everyone can learn from failures.
3. Use consistent methodologies when producing prototypes and tangible artifacts.
When trying to solve a problem, it’s important to understand all you can about it. This helps you set up meaningful goals and ensure that your solution will be useful in the context of your users, business objectives and constraints.
Consistent methodologies give you data from which you can conclude whether an idea is worth pursuing further or not.
Innovation Is Messy—Embrace It!
Today we are accustomed to working with our colleagues through video; however, six years ago it was an under-utilized function in most organizations. The founders of Loom embraced their mission and endured failed launches and fundraising attempts to ultimately hit the nail on the head and become a $1.5 billion company.
The key to embracing failure is to be prepared for it. By planning for failure, you can ensure that your team members are ready to learn from their mistakes. Failure is not only a part of the innovation process but also an important lesson in how to do things better next time around.
The notion that failure is a part of the innovation process doesn’t mean that you should expect every idea to fail; rather, it means you should be prepared for failure and use it to your advantage. The sooner you can embrace failure as part of the innovation process, the sooner you will be able to take risks and move forward with your ideas.