The Right Kind of Failure   


failure noun (NO SUCCESS)


“the fact of someone or something not succeeding

I have come to realise that we tend to over simplify some big concepts that need to be unpicked and explored with a different lens. Innovation, for example, is not a ‘thing’ or a single mindset. It is a spectrum of ideas and activities from the almost insignificant to the transformative and disruptive. Only by recognising this do we begin to understand that addressing different issues on the innovation spectrum require different approaches, skills and often different people.

A key tension which arises when discussing innovation is the worry about failure. I have previously blogged about some of the root causes of what is often seen as risk aversion, but essentially are we looking at the issue of failure in the wrong way?

We know that failure is a very broad term, but if we treat all failure in the same way we may well be damaging our ability to learn, to adapt and to innovate.

Why we need fail?

If we take a step back and consider, we can see many ways where we use failure constructively to learn in our daily lives. When we learned to walk, learned to drive,  or learned to play music we engaged in activities fraught with many small failures. What distinguishes those activities is that we tend not to think of the multiple micro failures as anything other than part of the learning process.

In short: failing means trying, trying means testing, testing means learning and learning means getting it right.

Malcolm Gladwell recently produced a fascinating podcast on this and how ideas and songs can sometimes need multiple interactions, iterations and failures to reach something special – perhaps never to reach perfection, but wonderful nonetheless.

But, of course, not all failure is to be welcomed. Missing a gear or stalling a car as a learner is not the same as crashing at speed. There is as much to be welcomed in ‘good failure’ as there is avoided in ‘bad failure’.

So what is good failure?

When it is new: new ideas and experiences are key to learning and innovating.

When it is fast: it is always easier to stop something that isn’t working earlier on in a process than after lots of money and time has been invested.

When it is small and cheap ( and ideally free!).

When it is open and shared: this can seem difficult, but rather than an individual or a team not repeating a failure, why not ensure the whole organisation or ecosystem learns?

When it is used to learn from and not repeated.


What is bad failure?

When it is repeated: we need to learn and adapt.

When it is slow: It is so important to ask “have we moved the needle?”

When it is expensive: whether time or money a wasted investment is never a good thing.

When it is hidden. Even if no one sees a failure, it is still a failure and worse still one that may be repeated.

 ‘Practice makes permanent’ (A term I learnt while attempting and failing to play golf)

If we tell ourselves we are risk averse, if we expect to be penalised for all failures, we will learn to do nothing new. But surely that in itself is a greater failure? An individual or organisation which does not learn to adapt and innovate risks failing to adapt to changing demands and circumstances.


What to do when you are failing

Don’t panic!

Ask “Why?” and don’t be afraid to seek a second opinion or outside expertise. Someone else with fresh eyes may well bring fresh perspectives that can help.

Then, can you pivot/re-purpose what is failing ?

If not …stop! There is no point investing more time and money on a failing, but…

Don’t throw out the good as well as the bad. It is very rare that there are not lessons to be learned and shared.


So how to fail smart?

First of all, understand what you are trying to achieve and talk to your customer/partners constantly.

Do you understand which innovation horizon you are working in? The degree of risk varies hugely as does the skillset required.

Start small and build a coalition over time. Innovation is a team sport, but it is best to start with a small core start-up team and scale up as required. Also worth considering is the skillset of your start-up/founder team necessarily what will be needed as it scales up or is mainstreamed.

Start by building a minimum viable product  or even pretotyping  – Google’s Alberto Savoia talks about failing ‘Ferrari fast’. You are not setting out to fail, but if you are stretching ideas and concepts failure is a possibility, even a likelihood.

If you are innovating inside an organisation make sure to get buy in and ‘top cover’ – solo runs will end in tears. At best, expectations are built up only to see nothing happen, at worst you can do real harm to yourself, to your organisation & possible create a legacy of fear & risk aversion.

Be prepared to stop. Sometimes that might simply be a pause, but sometimes you’ve got to kill off that project or idea.

And always try to be open & share what has worked & what has not.

But above all have a go!

I have a concept which I mulled over, teased out and, frankly, bored folks about for about three years. Had I kept going with the same approach nothing would have happened – it was destined for a slow, silent failure. Instead, over coffee one morning with some really bright folks from a range of backgrounds we went back to first principles. So a waterfall over-engineered concept has been stripped back, and an agile new idea is being iterated and will be tested in line with this blog.


I don’t know if it will work (it might well fail), but it will be fun finding out.