Failure really is a good thing

There is a really good conversation that was started the other day by Stefan Lindegaard, an open innovation leader who I follow and get strong value from. It
was about failure and the value of failure with a focus on both engaging
interested parties in a dialogue and coming up coining a phrase
(failsourcing, among others came up) that the conversation could build
off of. Equally, since I started jotting down these words there was a
terrific blog from David Hume that really is all about embracing both the benefits and culture of failure.

I have been an advocate of embracing failure and other cultural drivers of innovation and collaboration for awhile. The discussion around failure, risk, experimentation, etc. is a good,
worthwhile conversation that, like many of the cultural elements that
are stumbling blocks to understanding and progressing innovation and
collaboration, is not talked about enough by practitioners let alone by
organizational leaders.

For our part, we speak to our public sector partners about the “fail value” of any given innovation or collaboration initiative. As others
that have participated in the discussion led by Stefan mentioned, you
don’t promote failure, but it would also be silly to not learn from it
in any situation. Some of the history and good work done to date
on this topic (insert 2004 study) would point to those certain
situations being pure experimentation where the expectation of failure
is higher. As David mentions so accurately the first step is to (try)
not to be afraid of it.

For the public sector space, from my perspective, here are some top of mind “failure” questions that start to get at the core:

  • How do we help leaders understand and sell the benefits of higher risk and potential failure to advance innovation and collaboration?
  • How can we better provide insights around the benefits of prototyping and experimentation?
  • How do we change public sector processes and attitudes such that everyone is more comfortable with sensible “trial and error” as a
    regular approach to public sector initiatives and programming?

For our part we use a simple, “this ain’t rocket surgery” approach. First, you don’t need a plan to make sure that you capture failure value
in an initiative but you should give some thought to it in the context
of what you are doing, particularly if it is an experiment (i.e. how
scientists operate but usually without the granular level of detail)…we
just call this Failure Setup. Sounds simple, is simple but regularly
overlooked and under appreciated.

Second, remain aware and monitor failure during the engagement. Take some notes every once in awhile around things that might not have gone
as well as you would have liked, perhaps particularly so if they failed

And last – and the hardest part for the public sector – embrace things that didn’t work as planned, talk about them (openly), and share
them with the broader community. Ultimately, the goal is to learn from
them, improve, then move to the next iteration.

I think David’s experience in British Columbia is terrific and wonderful that he is sharing those insights. Unfortunately – and I
think that most would agree – it is too rare an experience. For our part
we are happy to share our uncomplicated approach, have people comment,
improve, maybe even digest some of it, and continue to share our stories
and learn from others about this important topic.


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Sam Allgood

Some interesting quotes by Thomas Edison relative to failure:

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

Many of life’s failures are men who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.

Nearly every man who develops an idea works at it up to the point where it looks impossible, and then gets discouraged. That’s not the place to become discouraged.

Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.

Show me a thoroughly satisfied man, and I will show you a failure.

Source: http://quotations.about.com/od/stillmorefamouspeople/a/ThomasEdison3.htm

Rick Weiss

I hear a lot about failure being a good thing – and it’s true. As long as learning comes from failure.

Where the real failure I see is to document failures in government. Where people shuffle around a lot, a lot of retirements are happening, and there’s a real failure to recognize and document failures, learning on an organization level isn’t happening..

And that’s a sad, sad failure.

What do you think? How can organizations “embrace” their failures, ease employees fear of failing, and make turn it into a positive learning experience?

Geordie Adams

Thanks for the comment Rick. It is sad. Also frustrating amid the lost opportunities. I would separate knowledge transfer and retention from learning to fail. They are both important and generally done poorly by government. I won’t comment much on knowledge transfer/retention except to say that there is significant opportunity in m opinion at looking at different structures and options rather than the unidimensional approach taken today. Good failure is aligned to taking reasonable risk, early pilots, accurate and often measurements, and sharing of findings, among other things…I think some leaders understand this but the vast majority don’t. I think it will take further time, particularly in Canada, for that to change.

Geordie Adams

Thanks Bill. I had a quick look at the paper…intriguing and holding up well 6 yrs later I think. I have not seen any but it would be interesting to see organizational failure broken out by org size and scope of mandate to see if there are any learnings.

I believe any project over a defined size and scope should be legislated to run a pilot and sometimes an alpha and beta before transitioning into an enterprise rollout.

Peter Sperry

Accepting incremental failure as a price that must be paid to reach ultimate success is one thing. Embracing failure for its own sake is an entirely different mindset. One that seems to be growing. No batter ever steps up to the plate with a goal of striking out. The great ones understand they will see many more strike outs than home runs but that is not their goal when they pick up the bat. Yes, a lack of failure is often the best indication the individual or team is not stretching itself. Nevertheless, I look around government and see entirely too many groups seeking failure for its own sake in order to embrace the latest fad. I would prefer they do so without federal tax dollars. We are running short of those because of earlier projects that successfully embraced failure.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Peter – I don’t think that I’ve seen a group say “hey lets really fail on this project and gain the scorn of our colleagues and the anger of our superiors.” I also believe that when a group adopts the latest fad or technology they are overconfident of the possible success of this new silver bullet. If you have some examples of a group that consciously and explicitly fail on a project, I would love to hear them.

Geordie Adams

I would agree with Bill, Peter. That said, I think part of this is really understanding the cultural change that is being sought. It is more about moving away from an entrenched risk aversion profile as an organization and more towards one that looks at change with a more progressive, curious approach. Part of that is accepting that in well-thought out pilots and test cases that failure may happen.

I believe that part of what your appropriate comment points to Peter is that even those considering a more progressive approach can get misaligned sometimes on exactly what is meant. We all (certainly including myself) need to work hard at clarifying exactly what “failing well” means.

Joshua joseph

Chandara – thanks for sharing the Honda video – good stuff. Geordie, thanks for this blog and links to the Hume post. I wish more people would make Hume’s point that “prototypes aren’t as easy as they sound.” The idea that all prototypes are equally valuable might be worth exploring in a future blog…I’d love it if someone would share (or point me to) the characteristics of successful vs less successful prototypes. I imagine that good practices in prototyping may even vary quite a bit depending on what you’re doing…for example if you’re creating a consumer product vs. trying to launch a public service program.

Thomas Edison’s quote about not failing…just finding 10,000 ways that didn’t work, which I hear a lot, is also worth some more attention. Surely, not all failures are equal. And in line with Hume’s point about prototyping, I’m also not sure that understanding the causes or learning from failure is as straightforward as it’s sometimes made out.  There would seem to a myriad of ways to fail and drawing the right lessons can be pretty important before kicking out the next prototype. This blog by Michael Schrage starts to address the point. Again, great topic to be exploring Georgie…keep it coming.

Best, Josh