Failure – what is it good for?

[Originally published on the Australian Government Public Sector Innovation Network under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY AU licence]

Who likes failure? Who likes admitting that they’ve failed?

These were some of the questions that inspired the first Innovation Month 2014 “Uncomfortable Ideas” lunchtime series topic “Failure: is it the dirty word that we can all learn from”.

Failure is a topic that comes up a lot – and it’s not something that public servants tend to be relaxed and comfortable about. Yet as Gail Kelly, CEO of Westpac, recently said “How are you going to learn and how are you going to innovate unless you fail? You need to fail fast, quickly and then get up and off you go again.”

Our two esteemed and experienced speakers, Jane Treadwell and Doron Ben-Meir, shared some great insights about failing, the nature of failure, and innovating.

Jane Treadwell began by sharing a great clip of famously successful people and the roadblocks that they had faced, demonstrating how failure can just be a step on the way to something better. If you’ve never failed, then you’ve never lived.

However Jane also noted that even though everyone in the public service knows that things sometimes don’t work out as expected, we still don’t like to talk about failure. We can tend to view failure as LIO – life is over (or career is over).

We can also interpret the desire of decision makers and politicians to avoid surprises as meaning that we shouldn’t try anything that could fail, as opposed to them having a preference for knowing in advance when something is being tried, and the reasons why.

Increasingly other sectors are beginning to see failure (or certain types at least) as a learning process, rather than a career limiting move. Some companies and organisations are even awarding prizes or giving recognition for the best ideas that failed.

Design thinking offers a number of advantages as an approach for allowing risk and uncertainty to be explored through experimentation and discovery. Prototyping in particular can help quickly explore ideas before committing significant resources.

Jane suggested that we need to do more to distinguish between what Amy Edmondson calls “blameworthy” and “praiseworthy” failure. Blameworthy failures are the deliberate mistakes, the mistakes that come from inattention or because a process is inadequate. Praiseworthy failures are those that result from exploratory investigation or testing of hypotheses.

This helps reflect that for many issues and problems there are no simple answers, and that the issue of failure can be as much about not tackling problems, as it is about how we choose to approach problems.

Jane proposed that we look to reframe failure, and accept that in order to have success in some areas there will also have to be failures. It is an inevitable aspect of dealing with complexity. We need to be better at understanding “bad” failures and those that could be good if there was the culture and the systems in place for us to accept it and discuss it.

Doron Ben-Meir shared a personal story of his experience of failure from the business world. He outlined how in this situation (a business deal) he went from thinking something was a complete failure to it being a success in two months, despite him having done nothing different to change it from one to the other. His message was that the difference between success and failure is paper thin, and often to do with luck.

This does not mean that we should simply wait for luck, rather luck matters when you have done the most that you can to be in a position to benefit from it. You have to have done what you could do.

Doron emphasised that if you live fearing failure, you’ll never try, and you’ll never reach success. Innovation is a journey, and while planning and strategy will not help you predict all the things that will happen or fully prepare you for the unexpected, they do offer an important discipline that will help you nonetheless.

So despite coming from differing angles (experienced public servant now in the private sector, and experienced private sector leader, now in the public sector) our speakers offered some very similar advice.

    • We need to engage more with failure, though making sure that we have done what could be done and avoiding the blameworthy failures
    • We can reframe failure as a necessary and unavoidable part of innovation (or even more broadly, achieving success) and that failures are valuable sources of knowledge and experience
    • There are strategies and methodologies available that can help us to fail fast or fail in small ways before trying to be more ambitious.

Failure is uncomfortable, but it is definitely something that we can, and do need to, learn from.