FailForward: Why Successful Innovators Have to Learn How to Fail

Failcamp @ trendforum 2010View more presentations from frog design.

It is common knowledge that most new products and services fail when brought to market. Charles Kettering, Board Member of GM (1920-1947) famously noted that when it comes to innovation: “You don't know when you are going to get the thing, whether it’s going to work or not and whether it’s going to have any value whatsoever." And even as things may have improved a bit since Kettering’s time, thanks to today’s attention to innovation processes and user-centered development practices, there’s still uncertainty that haunts all innovation attempts.

This high fail rate of new products and services stands in interesting contradiction to the flood of “Best Case” studies you will experience if you happen to attend a lot of business and innovation conferences. Best Case studies are certainly great stories and we all love to tell them, but I’d argue that in real life failures give you much more of a learning experience and motivation for improvement then success would ever do – think about the road to excellence if you do sports, think about how your kids grow up etc. And certainly this is also the case when it comes to business. So shouldn’t we hear much more fail stories and learn from them?

With that idea in mind, I hosted a “Fail Camp” on stage of this year’s trendforum, a high-level trend and innovation conference held each year in Germany. I was joined on stage by Thomas Wenzel-Haberstock from IBM and Peter Borchers from Deutsche Telekom, both innovation leaders within their companies. Together we tried to discuss how failing relates to innovation, share insider-experiences with the audience about failed innovation projects and the best practices (haha) companies can harvest from failure and succeed from learning.

Naturally, the faster you fail, the faster you learn and the faster you will succeed; so the often heard “fail fast and early” mantra was our starting point. And it’s interesting how much you can translate this process into “design-as-a-process” (others like to call it “design thinking”); the agile development process of designers with highly iterative work cycles, rapid protoyping and a constant conceptualization of ideas with a user-centered perspective seems to provide a perfect blueprint to learn from failures at an early stage and push your innovation project forward to success.

Translating this into corporate practice we identified four main challenges during our Fail Camp to successfully “fail forward”:

  • An innovation/corporate culture driven by a mindset that thinking outside the box, pushing beyond the boundaries and not being afraid to fail won't be penalized, and even more understands failure as an investment. Obviously this is a goal hard to achieve, especially in big corporations with a competitive environment in the innovation pipeline; when multiple projects and teams compete for limited funding, failure is often understood as a career killer (on individual level) and thus no option. So no wonder the business world is rife with examples of firms that keep investing more resources and staff in failing projects in the hopes of a miraculous recovery or simply to avoid the public embarrassment of failure.
  • However, admitting failure and moving on is a key lesson in managing innovation and proof of leadership excellence that is needed to fail forward. Companies like Google demonstrate that in public (just think about the hype around Google Wave and the way this project–and not the team behind-was then terminated when it became clear it didn’t get momentum), and their success speaks for itself.
  • Failing forward in large organizations also requires a modular structure to isolate the impact of a failure to a circumscribed part of the organization. Innovation Labs seem to be a solution often used here, however, such labs also shouldn’t be too “safe places” where you can’t fail, but you can’t succeed either (because your work simply doesn’t matter to the core business or you’ll never have the possibility to drive innovation to market). Projects with a high risk of failure and a lot to win or lose should be firewalled and include the possibility for mutation, e.g. milestones that are not ‘pass/fail’ but rather continue-straight/change-direction/stop.
  • Last but certainly not least, success depends on people, and failing forward requires people with the right mindset and courage to stick with the vision when necessary or humility to change when needed. I think it’s worth an extra discussion whether our education systems really enable us to this kind of leadership. It sometimes seems to me that when we leave school or university, failure is already not an option anymore, and risk-taking is breeded out of many job starters.

So will we see the Best Case study disappear at tomorrow’s innovation conferences and make room for discussions on failure? Probably not. The beauty of a well-executed best case study will always keep its charme and attract people. Still, based on the positive feedback we got after our Fail Camp session, there is definitely a lot of interest in learning from failure. I think conference organizers should embrace that opportunity as it truly creates value. Didn’t Samuel Beckett already point it out in the end in his 1983 piece 'Worstward Ho?': ”Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”


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