One of the foundational mindsets problem solvers need when practicing design thinking is the ability to learn from failure.
But, in order to learn from failure, first you have to be willing to fail.
With their pride and reputations at stake, most people do not naturally embrace a willingness to fail. Even if you decide to embrace experimentation and failure, practicing them can prove difficult - especially when you are fully aware of how failing to achieve goals will impact those around you, from customers to partners to funders.
When talking failure with First Round Review, Adam Grant, creator of the +Acumen Master Class on Developing Original Ideas, shared the idea that “you don't want to celebrate failure, you want to normalize it. Make it a common, expected and accepted part of creativity and innovation.” The job of design thinkers and entrepreneurial change-makers is to reframe what it means to fail from an experience to be avoided into a resource to be taken advantage of.
The sooner you embed a culture of smart failure into your workflows and teams, the faster you will design useful solutions for the people you serve.
The first step in reframing failure as a friend, not foe, is to take stock of your current outlook and understand how adverse you are currently to failure. The more the four culprits below show up in your work, the more indications fear of failure might be holding you back from creating meaningful solutions, faster.
Do you finding yourself rationalizing slow progress by saying it (whatever you’re working on) is not ready for the next step?
Are you busy doing ‘all-the-things’ instead of the ‘main-important-hard-thing’ that might lead to failure?
Are you working away alone at your desk, without getting your ideas and prototypes out to others for feedback?
Are you playing it so safe that you will likely never reach the point of stumbling or failure?
If you’re experiencing these symptoms, you’re not alone. We all adopt these practices to varying degrees along the journey of creating things that matter for the world.
Now that you’re grounded in a dose of reality, step two is to practice embracing failure as a path to success. Here’s how:
1. Expect that failure is inevitable.
“Anyone who has never made a mistake, has never tried anything new.” - Albert Einstein
Embracing the idea that failure is inevitable could alone dramatically transform the way you approach new challenges. Once you fully absorb the fact that failure is entangled with the job of being human, you realize it’s as certain as taxes and death.
No one is able to skip the beginner stages of learning and developing proficiency in a new skill. Even in cases where the task at hand is not necessarily new, the context and circumstances around us shift, and what worked before might not work the second, third or one-hundredth time around.
Failing is simply an unavoidable and inevitable part of life. Don’t take it personally.
Failure is a terrible indicator for assessing worthiness, skill, talent, or any other common measure of success.
Testing multiple iterations and prototypes is central to the design thinking process, and with this comes the expectation that not everything will not work. In design thinking, if none of the ideas you’re putting out into the world are failing, you’re not doing enough.
Some of Acumen’s investments have failed or fallen short on goals for various reasons, ranging from deficient technology to misaligned strategy. In a past ‘things we’ve learned’ blog series, Acumen writes, “plans written by experts can crash and burn when faced with the shifting realities of the marketplace, and even the best interventions must be designed to evolve if they are to go from good to great… Openness to failing opens us up to the possibility of real, groundbreaking success.”
Arianna Huffington echoed this learning and responded by adding, “Very often, the difference between success and failure is perseverance. It’s how long we can keep going until success happens. It’s getting up one more time than we fall down.”
2. Determining failure and success is not black and white; it’s how you interpret it.
“Just because you fail once doesn’t mean you’re going to fail at everything.” - Marilyn Monroe
As humans we naturally want to analyze everything that happens to us and understand what it means in our lives.
This phenomenon explains how two students can receive 80% on a homework assignment, where 80% feels like a miracle to one and a huge defeat to the other. The students’ reactions come from a combination of past experience and expectations in mind, and the exact same outcome is both a ‘success’ and a ‘failure’.
The lessons we choose to take away from experiences are entirely up to our own interpretation and lens through which we evaluate the circumstances.
This realization is not lost in the social sector. On determining success and failure in this environment, in the Stanford Social Innovation Review June Wang writes: “Given the complex nature of the work philanthropy supports, it’s hard to identify definitive measures of success… What does it look like for a foundation's work to fail (or succeed)? It’s not always easy to tell, and we have to look at a whole host of measures and signs that point toward health or sickness. Much of it is subject to interpretation, and it is almost never a simple number or a yes-no answer.”
As design thinking teaches us, once the outcome of ‘failing’ is reframed as an entirely normal and expected part of incubating new ideas, and improving existing ones, instead of a roadblock it becomes a stepping stone to success.
3. The path of failing is a spiral, not a linear path towards a dead end.
“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” - Winston Churchill
When you see many small failures as being inevitable along the path to success, you see that no single mistake will take down the entire operation. Instead, each misstep brings you closer and closer to your goal at the center of a spiral.
The center may always feel just out of reach, but with every step - and every small failure - you are gaining clarity on the direction you are headed and the specific strategies needed to reach your goal.
Along the spiral you can imagine encountering many small failures that gradually narrow in, leading you closer and closer to your central goal with every step.
When you think about it, getting comfortable with several mini-failures is much easier to handle than continuing down a linear path and arriving at one giant failure at the final deadend.
4. Failure is wisdom.
“Failure doesn’t mean the game is over, it means try again with experience.” - Len Schlesinger
No method of learning beats personal experience. Without action, all the lessons in the world passed on from those who have ‘been there, done that’ cannot truly prepare us for the challenges that we will face in life. As much as we pass sage wisdom and advice on to each other, the reality is, no learning becomes as fully ingrained as when it is personally experienced.
Learning from a failed experience is one of the surest ways to integrate the exact new knowledge and skills needed to avoid similar downfalls in the future.
Be careful here, because gaining wisdom from failure is not automatic. In order to reap the benefits from failure, mistakes need to be out in the open where they can be reflected upon and discussed.
Failing and quickly sweeping it under the rug is missing the valuable opportunity to consider what went wrong, why, and documenting the key insights to be integrated in the next steps. As long as failure remains taboo in a team or organization it’s gifts will remain hidden too.
If your team gets in the practice of regular post-mortems, you will soon have a log of valuable insights to synthesize into themes that can help guide the strategic direction of the organization.
One way to ensure these learnings are recorded and remembered is by publishing a Failure Report.
Engineers Without Borders started publishing annual Failure Reports in 2008. It was first inspired by an unsuccessful project in Ghana where Ashley Good (who now helps organizations build resilience through failure) found the team hesitant to discuss how and why it went wrong.
One Acre Fund has also published a collection of failure reports in their insight library, a living library of resources to share with others working on similar initiatives.
5. Failure pushes the limit of possibility.
“Failure is an inevitable partner on the road to success and, if you’re not willing to confront failure, you can never know how good you are.” - Peter Guber
As much as we might be programed to avoid failure, it’s an incredible way to stretch and grow to the next level.
Until you hit the limit of your current ability and fall down, there’s no way to know how much potential you are leaving untapped.
The breaking point we imagine in our heads is often very different from how it plays out in reality. Embracing failure opens up the possibility to explore the edges of capability and creativity.
Improvisational theatre shows this idea in action with the principle of “yes, and…”. In the improv world, no matter what one actor says, the others on stage are encouraged to build on the idea with ‘yes, and…’ to avoid the scene from stalling. In this way, everyone on stage is building upon each others’ ideas even when it feels outrageous and over the top. This expectation to push forward in unknown territory leads to unpredictable and sometimes brilliant outcomes that would have otherwise been left undiscovered.
Yes, failure can be uncomfortable. But embracing it grants you permission to push to the edge of possibility and accomplish feats you never thought possible.
Sarah Robb O’Hagan, creator of the +Acumen Master Class on Competitive Advantage describes this idea as ‘pain training’. Pain training is living those moments when you feel like you’ve made the worst mistakes, and using them to understand how current skills fall short plus how to next invest in further growth.
O’Hagan shares how it took getting fired twice in her twenties to open her eyes to the areas of her skillset that needed to be better developed. After the initial shock, she used the experience to open up in future roles about the areas where she was really strong, and the areas she was actively working on improving.
6. No failure is final.
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” - Winston Churchill
Even if none of the above help you see the upside of failure, the final saving grace is that no failure is final.
There are always more chances to succeed because there is no ‘end game’ in life (until the ultimate end). At least while breathing, life is in constant evolution and flux. There are infinitely more opportunities to build on past learning and use it as fuel to fire the next phase of growth and development.
Acumen has been part of stories where apparent failure later yielded valuable results. In 2005, Acumen invested alongside the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation into a micro-insurance agency for the poor in Pakistan led by the Aga Khan Agency for Microfinance. Although nothing like this had been done before, the plan for the new initiative was to break even within three years by leveraging existing micro-finance networks. After 4 years, 21,000 people were benefiting from the health insurance, but a number of external and strategic factors left the company with underwriting losses that it couldn’t recover from. Acumen’s $384,000 portion of equity capital was written off.
Most people would consider writing off $384,000 a huge failure.
Even with such a financial loss, there’s a silver lining. Not only were 400,000 people served with health and life micro-insurance over the project but after closing down, along with staff and assets, lessons learned from failure were acquired by another provider looking to serve a similar market. As of this writing, Jubilee Life Insurance has served over 1 million of those who cannot typically afford health insurance benefits, showing it’s possible to sustain micro-insurance products at affordable premiums for the poor. With time and perseverance, the early investment by Acumen and the Gates Foundation paid off - not in the typical picture of success - but by paving the way for a new blueprint to better serve the poor in Pakistan.
If you’re still unconvinced, try this:
take a current project you are working on and think through the absolute worst outcome scenario.
List all the problems you would encounter if it spiraled into a complete disaster.
Then go through your list one by one and jot down notes about how you would handle it.
Leaning into your worst fears and thinking through options to move on and make the most of it can diffuse the fear of failing. Google suggests a similar process, which they call a pre-mortem, to help teams anticipate what might go wrong and use that insight to inspire mitigation plans before they are needed. Google encourages anyone to adapt their own internal pre-mortem template offered here.
As the founders of design firm IDEO, Tom and David Kelley say, “the best kinds of failures are quick, cheap, and early, leaving you plenty of time and resources to learn from the experiment and iterate your ideas.”
Learn to embrace failure early and often in your work and you’ll be well on your way to harnessing it as a secret weapon for success.