Fail Towards Innovation
“I failed my way to success” – Thomas Edison
To fail is to fall short of success. Failing is the exact opposite to success and, in this perspective, it is something innately undesirable among organizations – we tend to avoid it at all costs. I will be the first to admit that I fail a lot. As early as last week as I started writing this post on failure, I felt excited about the idea and eager to check it off my “to-do” list. I was eager to succeed. But as the week crept on I only became more and more frustrated staring fruitlessly and somewhat aimlessly at all the drafts I had written, re-written and discarded. Needless to say, the irony of my failing experience is not lost and admittedly, I learned that failure is tough because it reveals weaknesses that would otherwise remain hidden. And regardless of whether we fail ourselves or if we fail a team, none of us wants to be the one to fall short of an intended goal. Yet, clearly, when it comes to innovation and creativity, organizations able to admit these failures are better able to foster cultures of innovation. They allow themselves the chance to respond to failure, in order to improve faster and, counter intuitively, it is by making and embracing these mistakes that they learn how to succeed – and succeed more often.
For organizations, embracing failure is one of the hardest lessons to effectively adopt because of its inherent catch 22. That is, most organizations want risk-free innovation. Leave it to the entrepreneurs and inventors to make the big mistakes – it is part of their job descriptions. There has never been an emphasis on failing and making mistakes for organizations because the thought of failing is in direct contrast to what the organization was put in place to do: succeed. In many ways failing is counter to its very nature. Like well-oiled machines, once built they were to be set on cruise control, never to stop or fail – go, go, go. They were not built to reflect and any break in the system would be seen as a threat. This industrial solution (perhaps a remnant of the industrial revolution) never accounted for any feedback loop and much of our present day industry is still predicated on this type of “no stop no failure” system. However, as alluded to before, learning to stop is critical and reflecting is crucial to organizational growth. It is the only way that we can learn from our mistakes. If we do not learn from our mistakes, we are destined to repeat them. The introverts of the world understand this well and would tell us that taking time to reflect and internalize problems results in rational decisions that improve processes, thereby enhancing deliverables.
In the foreign aid sector there has been an undertaking to recognize failure as an important road-stop in addressing the broken foreign aid system in North America. Engineers Without Borders (EWB) published their first Failure Report in 2008 harnessing stories that highlight the challenges and failures made in order to generate a dialogue for improvement. The reports are similar to annual reports, but instead report on mistakes and how EWB staff and other international development organization can learn from them. By critically analyzing and accepting failures, the hope is to encourage a dialogue of creative solutions that will allow them to not only address these failures, but to create bigger, more sustainable success stories for the future. In the introduction of the 2011 Failure Report, Ashley Good who is the Head of Failure at EWB and AdmittingFailure.com said that the reports prompted staff from all levels of the organization to “share their stories with humility, self-reflection and dedication to learning”.
From a practical standpoint, how can organizations actively responding to failure in ways that nurture innovation? It is one thing to admit to mistakes yet another to actively respond to them. And there is a danger of blindly celebrating failure without sensitivity to the context and people involved in the process. My take away from this is to begin to see failing as an action that requires a response (a valuable feedback loop), rather than a bad result. Failure is an ongoing process of refinement – by nature, it is iterative. The end goal is still success but the process by which that success is achieved is moderated with the many failures that line the path. In design, we call this prototyping or iterative making. By looking at innovation as an ongoing process by which we fail often to succeed more, organizations can take incremental steps towards creative change. There is a misconception that innovation must be a drastic and revolutionary change (to which the reaction is understandably too risky, too different, and too expensive). By focusing on the process and seeing failures as a form of rapid prototyping, organizations can respond to the failures frequently and incrementally with little risk. Instead of focusing on innovation as the outcome, it is better to focus on the process and the incremental steps we can take to improve – steps that are not too risky, different or expensive and ultimately, steps that are achievable. After all, outcomes can’t be controlled but processes can. So let’s embrace. Let us not be afraid to take the tiny risks that will yield the potentially great innovative successes we all seek. And let us not be afraid to do it often. At the end of the day, the rewards we reap will far outweigh the failures we sow.