Seven Ways Failure Could Be the Best Thing for Innovation

We fear failure more than we fear spiders, ghosts, or being home alone. And like any fear, it can be both paralyzing and irrational. Here are seven reasons failure is good for innovation.

Failure Is Part Of Life

Any experienced entrepreneur will tell you that you can have a thoughtful product with an excellent design and a sharply defined market seemingly eager for success and struggle anyway. While a desire to reduce failure is reasonable, we too often don’t view failure as a natural part of life that has to be lived with.

The trick is to sort failure into types. There are some forms of failure, like not paying your invoices, that can’t be allowed to happen. But many other forms of failure are simply inevitable, part of working life, and to be treated as something to learn from. Organizations need to make it part of the process to ask what worked, what didn’t, and why.

It Teaches You About Perspective

Imagine for a moment that in a lifetime of attempts, you only achieved the most important, in fact, the only goal of your job 36.6% of the time. Cringing yet? What if we told you that was the overall success rate of batter Ty Cobb, who, according to Major League Baseball statistics, is the best batter in the history of American baseball? What about a silver medalist in the Olympics? Are they a failure?

This is the key lesson about failure: Almost all failure is context-specific. Complete failure is extremely rare. Granted, some contexts are more important than others depending on your goals, but this shouldn’t be lost track of.

Most Successes Are, In Fact, Failures In Another Context

The history of innovation is littered with incredibly successful products that, in the context of their creation, were failures. Post-Its, for example, are the result of an attempt to find the strongest adhesive possible, where the researchers instead stumbled over an incredibly weak adhesive that seemed to have no use and sat on the shelf for ten years before 3M tried to market them as… Press N’ Peel. That also failed, until in 1980, the product was relaunched as the ubiquitous organizing and note tool we know it as today.

So, did the researchers fail? And by what definition?

Failure Teaches Through Experience

Up to 85% of new products ultimately fail, three-quarters of start-ups never make a profit for the VC funds that back them, and up to 70% of all start-ups fold in the first eighteen months. This means failure is built into the lives of even the most successful people, yet we rarely discuss our failures in the way they deserve, more often ignoring it.

Breaking with this trend can boost innovation, as you can help others and learn yourself from these stories. In particular, laying out why an idea didn’t work the first time can help you examine whether that idea’s time has come, find pitfalls within and without your organization that may not be immediately obvious.

You Can Do Everything Right And Still Fail

There’s always a chance of failing, and it’s something good organizations expect. The year 2020, just past as we write this, is a superb example of businesses doing everything right, in their context, and then something outside that context coming along and changing it.

The question is how your team handles this when it happens. Agility is important in the face of failure, especially when your context has been forcibly shifted.

Failure Is Often Just An Iteration In A Successful Product

The basic process of bringing a product to market, ensuring that it meets all the standards of both government regulation and client expectations, can be a useful one to observe when considering the importance of not getting it right the first time.

For some products, it’s not a question of whether or not it fails, but how the product fails when put in that state. Cars are an excellent example; once it became clear that a “crash-proof” vehicle wasn’t possible, the work turned to reducing the chances of serious injury. This has led to innovations we take for granted, like power steering and anti-lock brakes, and cutting-edge ones we admire, like automatic braking and blind-spot alerts. None of these innovations will eliminate failure entirely. But they’ll change its context and make worse kinds of failure less likely.

We Can Now Fail Better, Faster, More Effectively, And With More Data

As we’ve digitized design and coding, we’ve shifted failure to the realm of the virtual. Complex software is allowing prototypes to be created entirely virtually, for new services to be simulated in a closed environment, and for new processes to be tried out against machines. There is, perhaps, no better example of this than machine learning, which in the end is nothing more than a computer trying a task and failing, over and over and over again, until it gets an aspect right, and then goes right back in to make more mistakes and learn from them.

This has created a sort of nether-realm where failure happens entirely outside our experience; since we know the tolerances and measurements, we can run it through a machine, and if the part snaps or the code segfaults, we can go in and address it.

And there are good reasons to do this, not least the savings in time, money, and depending on the product, lives. Thoroughly testing a product virtually is a smart move both for consumer safety and the bottom line. But it does mean we tend to sort failure into the pile of failed simulations, something once again to be ignored instead of considered. We don’t look at these simulations and ask why we entered the data we did and what we can learn from that. That’s a rich vein of data that should be looked at closely.

Nobody gets it right every time, but what’s important is the effort is made, learned from, and applied again. To discover how your innovation strategy can benefit from an iterative process, schedule now.

This article was originally published on the IdeaScale blog here.



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