February 21st, 2019

How do we 'Fail Well'

Our May huddle focussed on the theme of failure, with some fantastic speakers sharing their very different perspectives. Huddle attendee Clare Coatman, from the TUC, wrote this piece for us on what she took away from the session.

A lot of innovation projects fail. So why is failure in general, and after specific instances, so rarely explored? Good Innovation's latest Huddle sought to tackle this issue, examining how we can 'fail well'.

A few common themes and key lessons emerged from the excellent and varied set of speakers. Here's what came through most strikingly to me:

The right analysis isn't enough

Samuel West, founder of the Museum of Failure shared an incredible story of excellent insight being scuppered by a failure in leadership. Blockbuster correctly foresaw the death of video rental at the hands of online streaming and had the foresight to invest in streaming provision themselves. Why then do we not all have Blockbuster accounts? The board lost their nerve at the prospect of such a fundamental shift, fired the company director, ditched online, and were decimated by Netflix inside two years.

In facing failure we have to face our own psyches

Failure is a particularly painful concept to face up to, as Jonathan Wise, founder of the Comms Lab, is acutely aware. Dealing with a sense of failure can shake the core of your identity and taps into difficult psychological issues around worth and self-esteem. Jonathan managed to come out the other side of a deep challenge to his work, partly by reframing success on his own terms. He also learnt to appreciate that the feeling you feel when you fail is proportionate to the potential depth of learning.

Casper Craven, entrepreneur and advendturer, learnt about failure through the world of business and sailing around the world not once but twice, the second time with three kids under ten. He has also reframed failure to the point of removing the word from his vocabulary. Instead, he thinks of himself as a scientist doing experiments, getting reactions and learning from the feedback.

The key exception to organisation's avoidance of facing up to failure is the aviation industry where the literal life and death stakes provide enough impetus. Change is painful, and we must accept that reality and work with it when attempting to engage more with failure.

Optimise to respond to failure rather than avoid it

As organisations get larger fear of risk often increases, when in reality larger organisations are better able to weather failure. Given that, it was certainly news to me that there are over 600 staff in government working to agile methodology. Jennifer Allum, Lead Product Manager for GOV.UK, shared some of their approach.

Classic linear projects allow time for errors in assumptions to snowball from procurement to delivery. The GDS's use of agile means they are constantly iterating, responding to feedback and correcting course. Agile evaluations start with a principle of no blame, assuming everyone did their best with the resources and knowledge available at the time. This approach takes into account the psychological context of failure and helps people engage with evaluations more fully by providing a safe environment.

It was liberating and refreshing to think and talk about failure. It's a genuinely difficult topic and as individuals and organisations we have a lot to gain by being willing to turn towards failure and face up to it.