Our series on paradox continues today by taking a look at the curious case of failure and how it’s popularity as a means to success represents more than just a paradox, but a series of contradictions that might just thwart the very innovation it seeks to support by embracing it.
Failure is everywhere. Today I noticed a major research university share a post on LinkedIn celebrating failure in the workplace. This follows a recent conversation with a colleague who was thrilled that she’d received funding to study failure, having secured peer-reviewed funding to do it. If it hadn’t done so before, failure has finally jumped the shark. With all due respect to my colleague, the university and everyone who’s embraced failure, it’s use in common discourse has now reached a level where it was never intended to go and has perhaps done more to mask real solutions to problems than solve them.
The more we celebrate failure, the more likely we are to get it.
I’ve written about the failure fetishism that is sweeping over the world of business, innovation and now education. You know failure and innovation has reached its peak when scholars are getting peer-reviewed funding to study it. This in itself represents a paradox on many levels when you consider that research is intended to support innovation, yet the very process that funders typically use to support funding innovative ideas is based on the evidence of how those ideas have been used before as judged by peer review. Thus, you need to show that an innovative idea is worthy by means of evidence to support the research to generate the evidence of the innovative idea.
If you are doing peer review appropriately one could argue that you should never approve projects that are highly innovative as there simply isn’t evidence to support it. Given that the university and science have the goal of advancing new knowledge it’s hard to imagine a more perfect example of paradox.
Anxiety & failure
It’s interesting to review that post from 2011 — 5 years ago — in that much of the material seems as relevant and fresh today as it was back then. Citing a column in HBR by Daniel Isenberg, I highlighted a passage that resonated with me and what I was seeing in the discourse and use of failure in scholarship and innovation development:
Well-intentioned though they may be, these attempts to celebrate failure are misguided. Fear should not be confused with anxiety—and celebrating failure seems aimed at reducing anxiety.
Anxiety is defined as an extreme un-ease and a discomfort and stress about a situation, scenario or circumstance. While the rates of clinical anxiety and mood disorders appear to be quiet prevalent at over 11% of the adult population in Canada, the general mood of the public as expressed in the media, social media, and coffee pub conversations suggests this might be the tip of an iceberg of yet indeterminable size. Some have branded this the Age of Anxiety, drawing on the mid-19th century poem (pdf) of the same name by W.H. Auden (suggesting our worry about worry isn’t new).
However, as digital marketing strategist and author Mitch Joel writes, digital technologies lend themselves to their own anxiety among citizens, business owners, marketers and communications professionals alike. As Joel and many others have advocated: we might need to unplug to better connect.
IBM has conducted its global C-Suite studies for years and has found that terms like collaboration, partnership, and social all emerged from the interviews and surveys across the world as priorities for business moving forward. All of these involve non-specific measures of success. Unlike profit (which is still a top-line item, even if not always spoken), the metrics of success in any of those areas are not clear and success is poorly defined. Ambiguity in the measures of your success and the uncertainty surrounding pathways to success is a recipe for anxiety.
If you don’t know what your criteria for success is, or what is expected of you, the ability to fail is low. But what often happens is that we see metrics almost arbitrarily introduced to program evaluations and research because we are using what worked before in one context into a new context. All of a sudden we have inappropriate measures and metrics meeting uncertainty meeting anxiety and all of a sudden failure becomes a big deal. Of course people are failing, but that doesn’t necessarily help the bigger picture.
The innovation problem
Innovation is something that can be enabled, but often not well-managed and the distinction is important. The former is more organic, complex and unpredictable while the latter notion implies a degree of control. The less control we have, the more anxiety we are likely to feel. But innovation is not just some word that’s sexy, it’s also about critically adapting to new conditions and new circumstances.
This Thursday in London, my friend and colleague John Wenger is leading a workshop on how to deal with Brexit for those feeling confused, upset, angry, or isolated because of the decision made by referendum this year. Through the use of sociodrama, dialogue and discussion, John helps people connect with their feelings and thoughts in novel settings and contexts to help them to ground what they don’t know in what they do. That is innovation lived out in real-time. This workshop’s not technological, it might not be easily commercialized, nor will it ‘scale’ enough to secure massive investments of venture capital, but it is a process that is at its heart about innovation: new thinking realized in practice through design to produce value.
If those participants go off and have more compassionate conversations with each other, their neighbours and with themselves as a result of this we will truly see social innovation.
Participants in processes like this are designing their life, their way of thinking and relating to each other that is new, even if the process, memories and material might be quite old and established. The confusion about the need for innovation to somehow be this (high) technological or world-reaching ‘thing’ is what limits our sense of what’s really possible and produces considerable failure. Failure would be a failure to learn and attend to what is happening, not a failure to experience hurt, shame, joy, confusion, or community.
Yet, if one were to adopt the rhetoric of failure in this case we might actually produce the very kind of failure that we, ironically are trying to avoid. Anchoring our metrics and focus on what constitutes ‘failure‘ — which is a concept that is rooted to some definition of success — leads us away from the complicated, tricky questions about what it means to innovate and adapt. It also draws us away from looking at problems of systems to problems of individuals.
Failed systems, not failed individuals
When individuals fail at not reaching an inappropriate target, it’s not a problem of them as individuals, but the system itself. Celebrating that failure might reduce some of the stigma associated with this ‘failure’, but it doesn’t address a larger set of problems.
While it may be that our interventions are aimed at individuals, it is the problem of the system in which individuals, groups and organizations are rooted that contribute to a great deal of the issues we individuals face. It’s why innovation requires platforms to be successful at a larger scale because they create new systems and ecosystems for innovations to anchor to other changes, which strengthens their power for change. If we were to look solely at individuals, divorced from context and the community/socitey in which they arise, concepts like Brexit cannot make any sense no matter how you look at them (whether voting for or against it).
Platforms and ecosystems do not fail as much as they succeed, but they do support the necessary change far more that idolizing the fact that we’ve not succeeded in achieving the wrong thing, which is more and more what failure is all about.
To borrow the phrase from design thinking: We may fail fast, but will not succeed sooner or ever if we continue to fail at the wrong thing.