Embrace the f****** word

I had the great pleasure to speak at the Impact Chapter in Hyderabad, India, on April 13, 2016 on how to embrace failure in the innovation process.

The conference brought (mostly Indian) Start-Ups in contact with mentors, incubators and investors from different parts of the world. The following text is a short elaboration of the thoughts behind my talk.


Two types of failure

There are two types of failure – the good and the bad kind. Bad failure is the one you encounter usually after long periods of work. You are creating something – let’s say a product – and when you are finally done, you bring it to the market and it just doesn’t work. The same kind of failure we know from our past at school or university: you write a thesis for months and when you finally hand it in, your professor doesn’t like it. And this kind of failure also happens during regular work processes: you work on something for a long period of time, then you finally show it to your boss or the management sponsor, who is supposed to back you up, and they just hate it.

I guess everyone can tell at least one story of this kind. We just waited too long. We were too busy developing our own thoughts, that we never bothered gathering the perspective of someone else in order to see if other people actually understand our ideas, concepts or our approach.

This is where the second kind of failure comes into play. Most structured approaches to innovation – such as design thinking – use failure as a tool in order to learn. I would call this kind of failure the good kind. Instead of putting too much work and too much effort into something that we can only wish to succeed, we build prototypes, test our hypotheses and create opportunities to fail small. We embrace failure as an element of our work.

Why should we fail?

When we implement this good kind of failure into our work processes, we achieve at least four things:

  • we iterate and learn,

Iteration in the process of developing a solution to a problem is always a good idea. It is very unlikely, that you will be able to find the perfect solution at once, so why not create a multitude of solutions and a multitude of prototypes in order to try different solutions out.

  • we save money,

Even though this approach is not a really cheap one, because it requires manpower too, I believe that by doing this, you can actually save money. Instead of investing effort and money into the development of the wrong solution, cheap tools such as paper prototypes used in a rapid prototyping mode can teach us which one of our ideas actually is the right solution.

  • we get rid of the sh**… unnecessary things

Failing forward also has the advantage, that we can identify the parts of our concepts that are nice-to-haves or even unnecessary for the solution to work. This enables us to decide which features and extras to take forward and which to drop.

  • we train our courage.

Finally, if we get used to a process where failure is OK we train our creative courage – a necessary precondition for innovation.

How can we fail right?

In order to implement the good kind of failure into our work processes, we have to be able and willing to experiment. Instead of taking everything for granted and building only on knowledge from the past, we have to nourish our curiosity. The deep urge to find out new things, see the world from different perspectives and to create new solutions has to be a part of our work culture.

This curiosity should go along with a strong feeling of compassion. On the one hand, we should feel compassion for the people we work for – the users and customers. On the other, it is necessary to be mindful of the people you work with every day. Not only should we grant ourselves the right to fail, but we should allow others this opportunity as well and stand by them, when they do. Learn together! A good way to practice compassion is to implement an element of play into the work environment. In design thinking projects we often use so called warm-ups in the beginning of a day – little games that we derive from school yards or from improv theatre. Teams who play with each other will be much more able to allow each other failure. If the CEO looses against the employee in a game, all hierarchical struggles can be renegotiated. The CEO will probably find it much easier to admit potential failure in front of his employees and thus encourage good failure and learning in his team. 

A common place in innovation is the idea of creating lots of options (eg. in a brainstorming session). This is another tool to enable good failure. By creating lots of ideas, you will create lots of failure as well, but at least you create choice, before you start the tedious task to implement an idea.

Finally the focus on prototyping and making things tangible that we always preach in design thinking projects can help you to embrace good failure. Even in the process of prototyping you will already see things that don’t work out. By testing your prototypes in an early stage with users you open another chance for good failure. The important thing is to stay open minded and to let it happen.

Celebrating failure within the own team or company is also a very good tool. This will help you to think about failure in a different way. You will loose the fear of failing!

What are your failure stories?

I would be very interested to learn about your failure stories. Do you agree with the above? Do you have counter examples? Don’t hesitate to comment on this article.

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3 comments on “Embrace the f****** word
  1. Petra Meyer says:

    thanks for your post, Moritz. fully agreee to what you wrote. Just thinking if there is a REALLY bad third category of failure: when you fail without realizing you failed. In this case, not only have you been on the wrong track, but you keep going into that direction. I have seen this happen esp with high ranking managers who were not capable of reflecting on their actions.
    Our system of educating brilliant individuals had excelled on them but made them helpless in times of complexity because they were never taught how to build on ideas of others, taking back their ego.

    What’s your take on that? Happy to receive answers from anyone out there.

    • Hi Petra,

      thanks for your reply. That is very true and I think another good reason to surround yourself with people from as many different backgrounds and with as many perspectives as possible. This way maybe someone else will see, that you made a mistake and are about to fail.

      Nevertheless, I also think that by iterating your way forward and engaging with other people while doing so, you minimize the risk of not being aware of your own failures. BUT! It is very important to stay open to critical voices. Taking back your ego is a really important keyword here, I guess.

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