In the Moment

Failure is Failing

Daniel Rose

“Failure” is a hot topic these days in the world of design thinking and innovation. Phrases that we often hear as organizations are dipping their toes into innovation programs:

  • “We have to learn to embrace failure!”
  • “We have to fail fast!”
  •  “We have to develop a culture of failure around here!”

This jingoistic, ill-defined trumpeting of “failure” as some kind of end goal has long been a pet peeve of mine. So when I heard some confusion being collectively expressed by a senior leadership team at a major financial institution, I felt compelled to turn my peeve into a post.

Ummm… Let’s Not Celebrate Catastrophes

Some of the executives in the aforementioned traditional, conservative, risk-averse financial institution were genuinely (and rightly) concerned about “celebrating failure” in and of itself. In their mental model, it wasn’t clear that “celebrating failure” is not about simply working in the same way they’ve always worked, but instead of holding people’s feet to the fire for under-performing initiatives, we’re now going to reward people for poorly executed work and lackluster results. What? Of course that makes no sense, but in the absence of further explanation, what were they supposed to think?

Innovation leaders must get much sharper on what we really mean when we talk about failure, because what we really mean is that we want our teams to engage in a team-wide culture of rigorous experimentation and rapid learning.

When organizations run experiments and share data, the whole team shares in the big wins.

The Business Case, For All Its Spreadsheets, Is Just a Big Ol’ Guess

All too often in legacy organizations, project funding protocol and culture calls for a “single” untested solution to a speculative customer (or citizen) pain point that must be supported by myriad untested assumptions (the “Business Case”) that might sound amazing, in theory.

However, in many organizations it’s really hard for people to backtrack once that funding train has left the station. It’s no wonder that hit rates are low in this waterfall format. And hit rates will only decrease in a rapidly changing world. Big product launches that fail should NOT be rewarded. I completely agree with anyone who says that. I wouldn’t want to be in a culture of that kind of failure. That kind of failure puts the organization’s reputation and results at risk. And to be clear, this happens in both public and private sector.

Experimentation and Risk Mitigation Are Friends

When organizations have a system of experimentation in place, it is a risk mitigation strategy against doing big launches that aren’t backed by any customer insight or data. Putting lots of early stage ideas in front of customers long before they would be considered for launch and gathering feedback decreases risk. We have heard lots of arguments to the contrary, ie. “we can’t let customers know that we don’t have all of the answers.” But the insights gained from engaging customers in these experiments prevents the kind of high profile, spectacular failures that can truly damage an organization’s reputation and results.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Mandatory Thomas Edison quote

In a culture of experimentation, it is understood that when experiments “fail” or, more accurately, successfully disprove a hypothesis, that absolutely should be celebrated because learning and validation is going to be the core competency of organizations that can thrive in a “VUCA” world. Great organizations will have a culture and process that allows teams to quickly test ideas, get feedback and share that feedback with the rest of the organization.

The organizations that will win are the ones that channel their inner Thomas Edison and quickly figure out the 10,000 ways that won’t work so they can hit a homerun with the one that will work. And in a big organization working on complex initiatives it takes an entire team to quickly disprove the first 10,000 ideas so that the organization can hit a homerun with the 10,001st idea.

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  • Josh Glover

    Totally aligned, no one should be celebrating large scale failure and we really need to clean up the terminology around this one. That said, thought I’d take a moment to share my other pet peeve about this general concept that I always run into in your typical large scale risk averse enterprises.

    When the leadership is busy saying “fail fast”, but is never willing to admit a mistake you set the wrong tone. I find too many senior leaders are unwilling to acknowledge any “failures” however small out of their teams as it may impact their own standing, metrics etc – you can’t learn from mistakes you don’t acknowledge and it sets a cascading precedent that makes it nearly impossible for the team to feel comfortable taking risks and iterating knowing that things won’t be perfect the first time.

    • Daniel Rose

      Agreed. We describe that as the chasm between “espoused culture”, ie. the things we say, versus “lived culture” which is what we actually do. And it’s all of those behaviours that are far more powerful in shaping a culture than the fancy posters that adorn walls around the office. (Edgar Schein popularized the “iceberg” model of culture.) We have seen success when team leaders give their people the environment to experiment and learn and then share results with the rest of the organization. When that “VP” can show the results of new ways of working that is the social proof that other, risk averse, execs need in order to feel more comfortable working in new ways. The working team is shielded from intense scrutiny in the experimentation phase by the innovative leader and it’s only once the good results are shown that the curtain is revealed and by then every other VP wants a piece of the awesome.

  • Peter LePiane

    Great post Dan!

    This is a MAJOR peeve of mine too. I implore my clients to, as you’ve captured, think of learning not failing. I often say that the scientific method doesn’t give a sh*t what you want to call failure. It simply gives you the opportunity to learn iteratively about a problem until you want off the ride.

    • Daniel Rose

      Thanks Peter! I love that idea about the scientific method.

  • Chris Wheeldon

    Couldn’t agree more – the rhetoric of “failure is good” misses the point completely and just confuses people who still use the word in its traditional sense. I keep thinking of that proverb: Failing is not falling down but refusing to get up. Maybe instead of “fail fast, fail early” we need to start talking about “fall down nine times, get up ten times” or something like that.

    • Daniel Rose

      I would say that the “fall down 9 times…” saying is a great way to describe resilience. Which is definitely a key trait of being an innovator in an organization. We will play an experiential game with clients called “The Maze Game” which teaches the lesson that you describe. One of the essential lessons of the game is that when people start they are afraid of making the wrong decision. But what they realize (some teams more quickly than others) is that the path to victory is in fact making as many “mistakes” as possible as quickly as possible in order to learn the right answer. It’s always a delightful moment when someone on the team figures that out and you can see the shift in approach to getting to the right solution more quickly.