“Failing successfully” - the creation of experimentation and failure environments that empower learning and future success
This article was written by Daniel Dümig, New Business and Innovation Manager EMEA at ASICS Corporation.
The concept of failing successfully isn’t a new one for the innovation sector. In the early 2010s cultures were being formed in startup environments where failing was not necessarily a failure. Failure began to be embraced as a positive thing. Looking back, things went as far as FailCon in 2009, “a conference for startup founders to learn from and prepare for failure, so they can iterate and grow fast.” Which, ironically, failed. However, not before helping to instigate a fail fast culture and the aptly named startup “failure fetish” (CNBC). Even then, Tony Zappala, partner at U.S. venture capital firm Highland Capital’s Europe fund, said being transparent about failure was, on balance, a positive thing. But, he warned there is a risk that the acceptance of failure could lead some to give up too soon (CNBC).
Jumping forward to 2019, the concept of failing has taken a larger step. Chief Innovation Officer at Hill Holliday, Mike Proulx recently spoke of why they give out an Epic Fail Award. He said, “we wanted to cultivate the kind of guts and appetite for risk-taking that’s required of true innovators […] when innovating, failure is not only an option that should be embraced; it must be an organizational imperative” (Innovation Leader). This “failure fetish” has warped into glorification.
Have we taken the concept of failing too far?
At what point do we draw the line between creating experimentation and failure environments that facilitate failure and those environments that actively encourage it. Proulx went on to say “Despite its awful-sounding name, this award has become something that Hill Holliday employees strive to win” (Innovation Leader).
Of course, we cannot expect innovation to come with constant success. However, we need to ask at what point does an idea become a failure? At what point is a project far enough down the line that should it not succeed it is deemed a failure? Is it after you’ve created your MVP? Is it after you’ve taken your first salary or recruited your first team member? What about after you’ve received seed investment? The truth is, there is no milestone we can point to and say “should the idea make it to this point and not succeed it is a failure.” What we can say is that at some point, any idea (no matter how great) will fail to an extent, and it’s what we do with this failure that determines future success. >Innovation leads to education<
In his 2018 letter to shareholders, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos highlighted: “If the size of your failures isn’t growing, you’re not going to be inventing at a size that can actually move the needle.” He went on to say: “Amazon will be experimenting at the right scale for a company of our size if we occasionally have multi-billion-dollar failures” (BusinessInsider). We learn as we go when creating and we learn from the mistakes we make. What we need to consider now, moving in to 2020 especially, is not focusing on the failing itself, but what we have learned from it and ensure that it doesn’t happen again. What we also need to keep in mind is the extent to which we are able to fail and at what point that becomes detrimental to the company, some can afford to fail harder than others.
Where we seem to be going wrong now is with intent. With awards like The Biggest Fail Award will we see our teams aiming to fail? By glorifying failure we’ve perhaps changed product direction toward aiming to fail on the first round. But, what can we expect if not only we say that failure is okay, but we reward it? What we need to do is change the intent at its core. Don’t aim to fail, aim to succeed and if you do end up failing then learn from it. Make sure the next time around, you push your learnings forward to avoid failures again. This is the attitude that needs to change within Innovation or R&D teams.
Failure is almost a currency when it comes to starting up, especially when it comes to staff acquisition. Amir Salihefendic, Founder & CEO of Doist recently spoke of how he “initially hired founders that had failed.” You can only imagine the lessons they have learned and understand the ambition and drive they have, that your startup may need. The truth is “good leaders learn from other leaders, even if they aren’t fans of everything they do” (Inc). Salihefendic went on to say “my biggest comment on [failure] would be learning from it and enjoying the failure, but certainly not glorifying it”. It’s interesting that Salihefendic mentions enjoying the failure and I think this is what Hill Holiday are aiming for as well, by eradicating the fear and rewarding the fail you spark joy in what can be a very tough time in any business, product life-span or team.
Moving forward into 2020, we need to introduce the constant reminder that in failing you are preparing for success. There’s a Japanese proverb that could not be more appropriate and deserves some thought here: Nanakorobi Yaoki, which roughly translates to “Fail seven times, get up eight.” It can serve as a reminder to fail in an environment that supports your rise again. We must “create an environment where sharing failure is just as important as sharing success. Focus on what both can teach you and how both can help you reach your goals.” (KnightFrank, 2019)
I want to leave you with my own conclusion on how you can create healthy experimentation and failure environments that empower learning and future success for 2020.
Be ready to Pivot
Dwelling or being married to a bad idea can sap resources and money as well as leave employees frustrated by a lack of progress. (CBInsights) Be ready to Pivot, but only do it when absolutely necessary.
Embrace don’t encourage
Find that line between embracing a failure and encouraging it. Ensure your team are still striving toward success and don’t misguide their intent.
Learn and Adapt
When failures do occur, make sure you give your team time to reflect, analyse what went wrong and why. In doing so, we change our behaviors and the product for a better result the next time around.
Transparency comes from the top
Be prepared to share your failures both up and down the company hierarchy. If you’re in a position of leadership and have failed then don’t hide it. Create a transparent culture that lets your employees know it’s safe to admit and discuss failure.
Know your limits
If failure is on the horizon, know how hard you are financially able to fail and try to assess if your learnings will be worth your financial loss.