In Search of Failure – Designing for Failure?

Who would be searching for failure? Failures just happen, though we always hope to avoid them. A vile thing, a vile word, no? Read more in this weeks' column by Bengt-Arne Vedin, PhD and Professor emeritus in innovation management. And why not joining in helping Bengt-Arne improving the article by joining the discussion?

On the most aggregate level, failure is, in a sense, a consequence of success: no innovations, no business models live forever – there is always Schumpeter’s gale of creative destruction. Failure is trivial: nothing lasts forever. General Motors once held 50 per cent of the US auto market; later (much later) they had to file for bankruptcy protection. TWA and Pan Am are once dominant airlines resurfacing in old movies only. And so on.

…society changes as the effect of an intricate interplay between new ways of organizing, new conventions, tastes, demographics.

The best we can hope for, no, the very best we must put our trust in is the existence of provisional truths, provisional, ephemeral successes, to be enjoyed as long as they last. It is not that technology moves on, though it does, but society changes as the effect of an intricate interplay between new ways of organizing, new conventions, tastes, demographics. Novelty and disruption is the order of the day, not the economist’s fake equilibrium. All winners eventually become losers, so move on. Everything is a failure in the long term; thus, nothing is everlasting – never completely.

Again and again, firms, organizations, that display surprising revival do so because they have succeeded in finding, within the depths of their structure, some odd project that is married to a technology or a market with a booming future. More often than not, that odd project was killed off on several occasions, or survived just because it was protected by some maverick with sufficient clout, or because it was just hidden or forgotten. A something identified as a failure but a failure that for some reason the organization failed to kill.

In a sense, every success is built upon an assembly of failures. The challenge would be to detect them; memory would tend to edit them away.

…every success is built upon an assembly of failures.

I am in search for a better word for failure, one not tainted with negative connotations. Because, after all, failure is the high road to innovation, because failure is the inevitable investment in the future, because failure is – the road to success. Remember Edison retorting when pitied for having failed at 5000 attempts (or some such number) to get the right filament in his light bulb: “no, no 5000 failures but learning 5000 ways that won’t work”.

Learning, tests, trials, and experimentation offer alternate, more positive angles. As kids we experiment constantly, with language, with acquiring skills such as biking and swimming, maturing, going through a process of socialization. Learning to ride a bike is worth some bloody knees; corrected grammatical errors are just that – but no failures.  Yes, we talk about learning and maturing, not about failing. To the contrary: we are succeeding!

The title “In search of…” intends to invoke that business bestseller “In search of excellence”. I heard its (co-)author Tom Peters tell what secret they had found behind the fact that some oil drilling companies were by far more successful than others – very simple: “they drill more holes”! The more failures the larger the number of successes. Losers become winners.

Within hailed innovator 3M, seasoned chemist (with more than 20 patents to his name) Spencer Silver happened to develop a glue that did not hold. He suggested several applications but none took off; he also told of his invention at several internal seminars, one attended by Art Fry, choral singer in his spare time. Well, you know the rest: Fry took Silver’s paper with bad glue to serve as bookmarks in his hymnal, and the Post-It® was born. In effect, Spencer Silver had often told of his ‘failure’ so that others could learn from it, build on it.

So: should we not fail often, fail quickly, fail inexpensively. Tell, disseminate failure results overtly – do not cover them up or try to forget them – and attempt to learn all lessons embedded. Look upon failure results as weighty trade secrets.

Map out a failure strategy.

What about designing for failure: design strategies for generating complementary failures that together make for success. What about rewarding failure – yes, there are firms with rewards for “risks that were worth taking even though the ideas eventually did not pan out”. So, think about metrics, about failure inventories and audits, always with a view to profit from the learning experiences. Map out a failure strategy. What failures would generate most information, most useful information? What failures would be complementary rather than overlapping? What failures would be best for us, least worthwhile for the competition?

Yes, we need to find and design and practice ways precisely to fail often and with low costs. To re-use materials and what otherwise would be waste. To rely upon scenarios and stories, and not least upon sketching. To make rough, speedy models, mockups, and prototypes – using whatever proxies are easily and cheaply available. What more? How to map the best set of failures to set out to make, to have the aggregate results contribute positively in the end? What about failure experiencing as part and parcel of every individual’s development, of an organization’s establishment of a joint culture and sense of mission and cohesion?

…failure would be… testing something never tried before, an exploration of the unknown.

We, you, might need a taxonomy for failure. One type of failure might be the one associated with extrapolating something already existing, testing the boundaries as it were. Another type of failure would be one implying testing something never tried before, an exploration of the unknown.

This article is a failure – no, it is not yet complete (will it ever be?). A try, an attempt, a test, an experiment. So, why not help me out?

About Bengt-Arne Vedin

Bengt-Arne Vedin

Bengt-Arne Vedin, PhD, is Professor emeritus in innovation management, now affiliated with the Department of Industrial economics and management at the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm. After practicing innovation and entrepreneurship, resulting in a handful patents, he has been into innovation studies since the mid-1970′ with professorships at the Royal Institute of Technology and Mälardalen University, also serving as a guest professor at Kasetsart University in Thailand and Universitat de Girona in Spain.Bengt-Arne has consulted for large and small firms as well as organizations such as the US National Academy of Engineering and the OECD, and has served on some fifteen corporate boards of directors. His research is geared at innovation, IT, and futurology in various combinations, most recently at design-inspired innovation. He is now working on his book no 71 on that theme.

  • Ashkan

    Interesting reflections, as always with Prof.Vedin. Maybe Serendipity is the closest word to faliure, with a positive connotation :)

  • Bengt-Arne Vedin

    Actually, in a version of this piece to appear in a book (forthcoming), I have adopted yours and Saeid’s the creative dance as a possible moniker.

  • Patricia McGrath

    I am new to the group. I find your thinking to be very interesting.

    Some thoughts that I’d like to share: Learn from what didn’t work, what was attempted/intended. Ultimately leveraging the impact of change for the next opportunity.
    Example:
    *BPR projects to address “broken” or “repetative” business processes, lead to massive re-engineering initative, the selection & implementation of many ERP packages and sucess of many software vendors/solutions (SAP, PSFT, ORACLE, etc.).
    *The implementation of these products and services were the basis for the elimination of roles, consolidation of responsibilities, producing many eventual failures to truly improve business performance internally and externally.

    This then, becomes the next opportunity to innovate by creating, yet another set of services and products aimed at creating a functioning set of processes and an organization that is customer aligned.

  • Bengt-Arne Vedin

    To take your comment and run with it: communities of practice would allow for the building upon steadily improving ‘incremental failures’ = ‘incremental successes’.

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