Failures as our Greatest Successes

Submitted by vanessa reid on March 24, 2011 - 6:42am
truly re-defining failure - it's an essential ingredient for innovation

"Most attempts at innovation, by definition, are risky and should 'fail' - otherwise they are using safe, rather than unknown or truly innovative approaches" writes Burt Perrin in "How to - How not to - Evaluate Innovation."

It is a great reminder that if we want to transform our lives or our work, our communities, or systems - if we are truly on the quest to create a new way forward, we need to re-define what we mean by success and failure.  Not only that, but to PRACTICE what this means. We should not expect new concepts necessarily to work - "indeed if one is trying really new and unknown and hence risky approaches, most should not work," writes Perrin.

If failure is the key to success, how do we actually support and encourage this kind of "failure" in service to greater learning and towards the kinds of innovations that can seriously shift our current intractable issues?

In a large-scale systemic change project I am part of called the the Finance Innovation Lab in the UK, we are asking how can we create a space for the Innovation Groups to really feel safe and supported in taking risks. To let them know that we support mistakes and failure because this is the Good Stuff and we are intent to go deep with them, and really learn from everything they do.  So our question is:

How do we create a safe place for "failure" and "mistakes" as essential ingredients, and critical markers in our innovation process, as we learn and create fundamentally new ways of living and working?

Recently Engineers Without Borders put our their Failure Report- a hugely successful campaign to bring insight, intelligence and learning into the field of international development:

"This site is an open space for development professionals who recognize that the only “bad” failure is one that’s repeated. Those who are willing to share their missteps to ensure they don’t happen again. It is a community and a resource, all designed to establish new levels of transparency, collaboration, and innovation within the development sector."  True to the spirit of innovation, they say that,

  • "By hiding our failures, we are condemning ourselves to repeat them and we are stifling innovation. In doing so, we are condemning ourselves to continue under-performance in the development sector.
  • Conversely, by admitting our failures – publicly sharing them not as shameful acts, but as important lessons – we contribute to a culture in development where failure is recognized as essential to success."

In our own work in the Finance Innovation LAB, we are on the edge between wanting to show the LAB is "successful" and wanting to embrace "mistakes".  A big part of this is that as a nascent movement or initiative, we need to be able to explain to funders and potential investors that yes, indeed, things are chaotic (or chaordic), emergent, messy and exactly as we would hope they would be working.  And that the most critical element is the we are actively LEARNING from everything and therefore evolving the work with higher and higher levels of awareness and sophistication.  This needs to be coupled with "beginners mind" - the zen buddhist notion of the "mind that is innocent of preconceptions and expectations, judgements and prejudices. Beginner's mind is just present to explore and observe and see "things as-it-is."

In other words, we need to continue to encourage, and have leadership around, the notion that to innovate is to enter new territories, to open space for radically new ideas or practices to enter our field.

So a key component to innovation is to be active learners, and to have this be a priority and an indicator of success, that learning IS happening. A few things to keep in mind:

  • A key component of effective innovation is an openness to learn, and one learns at least as much from 'failures' as from what does work.
  • Unexpected failure can be a major source of innovation opportunity, and that innovation most frequently works in ways different from expected.  A lot of small failures can help avoid a big one, says Peter Drucker.
  • "Become a failure fanatic.  Seek out little interesting foul-ups and reward them and learn from them.  The more failure, the more sucdess - period." (Peters)
  • Bring in your "Failure" up-front to peers, stakeholders or funders to openly learn together or create a "Failure Fair" where you celebrate and innovate from collective "failures".

Here is a great example from I Won Science Fair with a Failed Project: The Skill of Presenting Failures:"When I began preparing for my presentation, I made a list of the questions that I really didn’t want to answer about my project. Uncomfortable as that process was, I figured out how to answer those questions. I even felt comfortable talking about each of those points and included most of my answers in my presentation. The questions boiled down to the five below:

  • What went wrong?
  • What could I have done, in hindsight, to prevent the problem?
  • What parts of this project is salvageable?
  • Can I still meet the goals of this project? How?
  • What is the future of this project?

And lastly, we need to help funders and investors re-define what a "successful" project means to them. They need to be asking for what is being learned and how this is being integrated into the strategy as opposed to defining in advance what success should look like. And funders need to be co-learners with us in order to understand where the openings for change, for further support are beginning to show their nascent and fierce heads.

"That's learning. Admitting uncertainty.  Trying things. Making mistakes." ~Don Michaels and Dana Meadows.

RESOURCES:

1.  EWB Failure Report: http://www.admittingfailure.com/
2.  Better by Mistake : CBC Radio: http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/episode/2011/05/18/better-by-mistake/

We were joined by two people who are trying to rehabilitate the idea that mistakes can be good for you. Tim Harford is a columnist for the Financial Times. He's best known as the author of The Undercover Economist and his new book is Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure. Tim Harford was in London, England. And Alina Tugend is a columnist with the New York Times and the author of Better By Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong. She was in Larchmont, New York.

3. I Won Science Fair with a Failed Project: The Skill of Presenting Failures4. Failure Fairs: http://causeglobal.blogspot.com/2010/03/fail-fairs.html

Comments:
Vanessa, this is great to

Vanessa, this is great to hear about the EWBs Failure Report. Makes me want to read it.

I had heard of your Finance Lab but wasn't sure what it was all about. Sounds interesting. I shall ask my friend google and see what I can learn. Looking forward to reading more about it from the inside scoop!

You are probably familiar with Seth Godin's blog, but if not I think you will like it as he is a great advocate of the fail often principle - among others. (sethgodin.typepad.com)

-Rebecca

Failure as a way forward

Hi Vanessa,

Your post is of a great deal of interest to me. I recently started a Failures folder for my own work. Not so I could beat myself up over past mistakes, but so I could take a look there from time to time and see all the things I tried (and learn from my mistakes). I think it's exciting that companies and organizations are doing this, too. I guess everyone always wants to put forth their successes. But the process is so much more than that.

Thanks for sharing this!

your failure folder

 

hi again!i wanted to share some things for your failure folder!1.  EWB Failure Report: http://www.admittingfailure.com/
2.  Better by Mistake : CBC Radio: http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/episode/2011/05/18/better-by-mistake/

We were joined by two people who are trying to rehabilitate the idea that mistakes can be good for you. Tim Harford is a columnist for the Financial Times. He's best known as the author of The Undercover Economist and his new book is Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure. Tim Harford was in London, England. And Alina Tugend is a columnist with the New York Times and the author of Better By Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong. She was in Larchmont, New York.

3. I Won Science Fair with a Failed Project: The Skill of Presenting Failures4. Failure Fairs: http://causeglobal.blogspot.com/2010/03/fail-fairs.html