Monday, November 22, 2010

Failure must always be an option

I chose the title of this point tongue in cheek, because I have a great friend in the military and his signature is FINAO - Failure is not an option.  In the military, when every decision is life and death, that mantra is correct.  In innovation, however, failure must always be an option.

I've been scanning Twitter posts and other blog sites and I see that many commentators believe that acceptance of failure and "failing forward faster" is imperative to innovation, and for the most part I agree.  What's missing is a deeper investigation into the issues surrounding "failure".  How does an organization "accept" some failure when FINAO in most cases?  You know a subject is getting some attention when the cartoonists have something to say about it.

The problem with failure - either accepting it or rejecting it - is in defining it.  Today, in most firms, failure can be defined in using these criteria:
  • No one wants to fail because it reflects badly on them and their careers
  • Failure is a one time deal - it's cataclysmic and ends badly
  • Failure is an end point - a terminal destination
  • Failure is ridiculed, mocked and reviled.  We tell cautionary stories about previous failures
  • The culture rewards success and ridicules failure.
  • Failure is costly
  • Failure is unpredictable
In these instances, only success is viewed as a reasonable outcome.  Status quo is accepted with some grumbling and toleration, and any other outcome is means for dismissal.  And that's what potential innovators face in many organizations.  If we can't guarantee success, go back and try again, or worse, do something to cut costs or increase efficiency.

When you hear people talking about the importance of failure, or when you read people writing about the importance of failure, they are correct but incomplete.  We all understand that failure is important to innovation, but we need to understand how to create the conditions in which failure is acceptable.  Clearly, if failure is considered a worthless, terminal condition then it can never be acceptable.  However, if we can establish some of the characteristics I've listed below for failure in an organization, then we may be able to create meaningful failure:

  • Failure is contained and inexpensive
  • Failure is considered a likely outcome
  • Failure is not an end point and isn't terminal to the effort
  • Failure is considered part of the process of learning and developing
  • Failure is predictable - in fact we assert the likelihood of failure
  • Because it involves learning, advancement and was predicted, failure is accepted or celebrated
Think about the shift in mindsets revealed by the different thinking and reactions to failure.  The cultural bias toward catastrophic failure can be tempered by a smaller, contained failure that is part of the learning process and ultimately leads to new insights, knowledge or a new product.  Rather than one big, risky, unplanned failure, we create experiments with lots of small, contained and somewhat predictable failures that lead to greater success.

Strangely, the situation I've described is what we'd expect in an R&D lab, but don't plan for or tolerate anywhere else in most organizations.  Controlled experiments that advance our knowledge and prepare the first to make better decisions leading to better products - that's valuable.  Perhaps we just need to reframe our language.  Rather than "failing forward faster" we need "rapid, controlled experimentation".

No matter how many times innovation experts tell you that failure is important and must be part of the process, that doesn't really matter until someone tells you how to make failure more acceptable in your organization, so that you can be allowed to fail occasionally.  What managers hate more than failure is uncertainty, unexpected costs and risks.  If you can demonstrate that your experiments remove uncertainty, reduce costs and risks, controlled failure will be tolerated or even accepted. Heck, you may even win an award for it.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:23 AM


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post.

I think what you are actually suggesting is rapid prototyping. Failure in this set-up is not generally terminal (but could be in the extreme cases), but any failure is not likely to be costly in this situation.

1:47 PM  
Anonymous Erin Schumpert said...

Great article, Jeffrey. I think that many companies have experienced that one greatly anticipated product-gone-bad or new process that instead of improving the current process, only exacerbated it. Sure, these situations are less than desirable; however, without some failure companies wouldn’t be where they are today- heck, the world wouldn’t be where it is today. More companies need to accept and insert the mentality that “failure is accepted or celebrated” as a step in the innovation process towards success.

1:51 PM  
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