First Attempt in Learning: Why Failure is Key to Innovation

For a long time, failure has been looked down upon as a four-letter word. It’s no surprise failure has earned a bad reputation: from grade school through university and into the workplace, failure is seen as a worst-case scenario to be avoided at all costs. And while it’s true that failure stings, that it can be uncomfortable and disheartening, it’s also a powerful learning tool. In recent years, business leaders and disruptors have started to call attention to the role failure plays in fostering innovation. We’re starting to see failure in a positive new light. In the future of work, innovation is key to survival. Companies will have to constantly innovate to thrive in an uncertain future. And failure is a valuable teacher when it comes to learning to innovate. Failure is often positioned as the opposite of success, but that’s far too simplistic – and negative! – a view. Success doesn’t just magically happen: it’s the final step in a long process of innovating and learning from failure. Daniel Epstein, CEO of Unreasonable Institute, sums it up nicely: “Failure is a weird word. I don’t see it as failure. I see it as a natural evolution of a solution to a problem.”

Failure’s time to shine

From classrooms to boardrooms, people are discovering how to learn from failure. Failure has been crowned the mother of innovation, because innovation is something we can only learn through a process of trial and error. To be innovative, you have to be willing to experiment and fail a few times.

Silicon Valley might be the best example of an innovative community where failure is celebrated. “Fail fast, fail often” has long been Silicon Valley’s mantra, championed by CEOs and stenciled onto office walls. It recognizes that trying and failing is central to fostering innovative ideas. The design process involves repeated failures: testing out a new idea, tweaking it, improving it, refining it. Once failure is seen as a normal part of this process instead of something to be feared and hidden, there’s more freedom to test creative ideas informed by our failures.

Silicon Valley is celebrated for innovations built from the bones of past failures. Author Michael S. Malone had this to say about its approach to failure:

“Outsiders look at Silicon Valley as a success, but it is, in truth, a graveyard. Failure is Silicon Valley’s greatest strength. Every failed product or enterprise is a lesson stored in the collective memory. We don’t stigmatize failure, we admire it.”

– Michael S. Malone

Destigmatizing failure could go a long way to freeing ourselves to become more innovative.

How can we embrace failure?

Failure can be hard to talk about, because we’ve been taught to hide it for so long. To reframe our relationship with failure, it can help to remember how we dealt with roadblocks as children. As kids, we’re naturally inquisitive. We’re eager to try new things in the name of play, and when things don’t go our way, instead of dwelling on what didn’t work, we’re quick to move on and try something new. Think of kids playing with building blocks, for example. When a tower comes crashing down, they don’t waste time worrying about what went wrong: they jump right into a new approach. We were onto something as kids. Toys can play an important role in teaching us to fail better and smarter (it’s why we’re currently working on a new Failure Toy – stay tuned!). There are simple ways to rethink failure:

  • Silence your inner critic: Instead of dwelling on what went wrong, look to the lessons learned and think positively about how you can improve your next approach.

  • Collect valuable data: Do some detective work and explore why your attempt fell short; try to identify the specific variables that led to this result.

  • Value progress: Acknowledge the progress you’ve made even when the result isn’t ideal, and make note of how past lessons helped you improve.

Getting comfortable with failure can pave the way for exploration and innovation. As Thomas J. Watson, Sr., the founder of IBM, put it:

“Go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can, because that’s where you will find success: on the far side of failure.”

– Thomas J. Watson, Sr., Founder of IBM

The right way to fail

Now that you’re feeling inspired to fail, it’s probably time to acknowledge there are different kinds of failure, and only a few are helpful in fostering innovation. Jamer Hunt of Fast Company described a failure spectrum that outlines six different types of failure.

Abject failure, for example, is not the kind of failure that leads to innovation. Quite the opposite, this is the deep, dark failure of lost jobs, lives and livelihoods.

Moving along the spectrum, version failure involves little failures that lead to gradual but significant improvements over time. And predicted failure occurs when failure is a necessary step in the design process that clarifies the right way forward. These two types of failure can lead to remarkable innovation and invention. And that’s because they’re failures that we can learn from and improve upon.

Over in Harvard Business Review, Amy C. Edmondson described a different spectrum for organizational failures from blameworthy to praiseworth:

A Spectrum of Reasons for Failure

  • Deviance: an individual chooses to violate a prescribed process or practice.

  • Inattention: an individual inadvertently deviates from specifications.

  • Lack of Ability: an individual doesn't have the skills, conditions, or training to execute a job.

  • Process Inadequacy: a competent individual adheres to a prescribed but faulty or incomplete process.

  • Task Challenge: An individual faces a task too difficult to be executed reliably every time.

  • Process Complexity: a process composed of many elements breaks down when it encounters novel interactions.

  • Uncertainty: a lack of clarity about future events causes people to take seemingly reasonable actions that produce undesired results.

  • Hypothesis Testing: an experiment conducted to prove that an idea or a design will succeed fails.

  • Exploratory Testing: an experiment conducted to expand knowledge and investigate a possibility leads to an undesired result.

– Amy C. Edmondson, Harvard Business Review

Failure can be a useful tool that gives us the perspective to try new approaches and see what works. And that’s how innovation occurs: through actively testing out new ideas. As our hero Ken Robinson said:

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Failure can provide the insight needed to put new ideas into action.

Transforming failure into innovation

In the future of work, innovation will be a top priority. Automation will change how we work in the future. Being innovative and adapting in times of disruption will help workers thrive through uncertainty.

So how can we create work environments where people are empowered to be their most innovative selves? First, employers need to accept that innovation is the result of a continual process of learning and failing. They need to offer a safe work environment where failure is celebrated as a necessary part of the innovation process, and employees are encouraged to take positive risks.

The psychological safety people feel at work is key to promoting innovative thinking. Workers can’t feel ashamed to share their mistakes, otherwise they’ll hide vital information that can lead to innovative solutions. Google led a study of 240 workplaces to find what made a team innovative. They found that the only distinction between an innovative and a non-innovative team was psychological safety. In a nutshell, if employees feel safe trying new things, sharing mistakes and offering ideas, they’re better equipped to be innovative in their work.

Psychologist Carol Dweck’s groundbreaking research on failure offers important insight into how we can nurture an innovative mindset at any age. Dweck found that people see themselves one of two ways: with a fixed mindset, people believe their talent and intelligence is set in stone, whereas people with a growth mindset believe those same traits can be improved through practice and hard work. With a growth mindset, our failures become necessary pit stops on the way to our best, most innovative selves.

Having a growth mindset is important not just for accepting failure, but for growing all the 21st-century skills we’ll need to conquer the future of work, like empathy, creativity, and of course, innovation.

It’s time failure stopped getting such a bad rap and instead received its proper recognition as a key that unlocks innovation. Viewing our failures through a positive lens can teach us to evolve and innovate. Our mistakes have important lessons to teach us, if we fight the impulse to hide those failures and instead, examine them with patience and curiosity.

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