Chris Coldwell, founder of Quicksilver Software Development.
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 closely linked; one helps create the other.
Innovation is about trying new things and taking risks, which inevitably comes with 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 customer outcomes.
The taboo of failure
We feel that the only way to succeed is to be perfect, so if we make a mistake or fail to achieve our goals, it can feel like a personal failure. But if you look at success stories in science, business and other sectors, especially those involving innovation, you’ll see that they are full of mistakes. Thomas Edison is often referred to as the inventor of the light bulb; to be precise, he was the inventor of the carbon filament that could burn a glass bulb for 40 hours. It was rumored that Edison had 2000 unsuccessful attempts before he found the carbon filament that worked; the light bulb as we know it today was the result of building on the failed attempts of many inventors more than 50 years.
Edison, and many others like the Wright brothers, didn’t start out with all the right answers; they learned from their mistakes until they got their hands on something great (and sometimes even after).
So, what exactly does it mean for an experiment or project to fail? It may mean that you are not achieving your goal or that you are missing out on the intended result, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. As long as you understand why something failed, there’s nothing wrong with taking a break from one experiment so you can try another approach later. You could make more progress by changing directions than holding onto what didn’t work.
My team had an experience taking on a new client through a partner, where we quickly discovered that we had entered the assignment with the wrong expectations. Our interpretation of the partner was that this client was ready for big changes, so we had gone in with the mindset of “find what doesn’t work 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 accomplish. In a very short period of time, this collaboration resulted in the removal of most of our team! This could very easily have been a failed project if we hadn’t taken the time to work with our client and figure out what went wrong. Without the innovation our remaining team has shown in restoring our client’s trust, we would have failed them completely. But without this experience, we would not have had the opportunity to evaluate our internal new customer onboarding process to ensure smooth onboarding going forward and an effective partnership for both parties.
How to embrace failure in your organization
1. Create an environment that encourages new ideas.
We know about Create design principles that tackling complex problems from different angles often yields better results. The same goes for innovation. The more ways you approach a problem, the better your chances of finding an innovative solution. This means setting up a collaborative environment.
In a collaborative environment:
• No person or team is responsible for coming up with ideas.
• Ideas are shared with the expectation of building on them as a team.
• Lessons from previous ideas are applied without crushing the new idea (this is harder than it sounds!)
2. Test ideas with the anticipation of failure.
Let’s be honest; we don’t learn much when things go right. So start testing viable ideas and let them fail. The more you know about each idea, the closer you 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 necessary for success. Encourage sharing of mistakes and lessons learned so that everyone can learn from failures.
3. Use consistent methodologies when producing prototypes and tangible artifacts.
When you’re trying to solve a problem, it’s important to understand everything about it. This will help you set 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 infer whether an idea is worth pursuing or not.
Innovation is messy – embrace it!
Nowadays we are used to working with our colleagues via video; six years ago, however, it was an underutilized feature in most organizations. Embracing their mission, Loom’s founders endured launch failures and fundraising attempts to eventually 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 part of the innovation process, but also an important lesson to do better next time.
The idea that failure is part of the innovation process doesn’t mean you should expect every idea to fail; rather, it means being prepared for failure and using it to your advantage. The sooner you can embrace failure as part of the innovation process, the sooner you can take risks and move forward with your ideas.