Failure and Learning

Failure deals in absolutes while learning is about discovering possibility. Focusing on the former often leads us to miss the latter.

Failure. It’s an emotionally laden word and also a big part of innovation work. Lately, the term failure is having a moment — it’s even got its own toy to help people learn how to fail safely and do it better.

Coming to terms with failing is important, but it’s also something that can become almost a fetish and can take us away from a bigger question: Is the concept of failure appropriate for speaking of innovation?

Asking the right questions of failure

One can only fail when we know what success means. More often than not — especially with human services work — we don’t fully know what success is. The reason: complexity.

In complex systems, we can anticipate possible outcomes, yet can’t predict what will happen with high confidence.

If we can’t predict or assure what an outcome ought to be from our innovation, how can we fail?

The only real failure in these contexts is a failure to learn. In these cases, the issue is not about whether we fail, rather it is: did we set ourselves up to learn from what we did? Learning means paying attention, asking questions, collecting data (observations and other metrics), and taking the time to make sense of what we see and place it into context.

For innovators this also means converting these lessons into design actions. This means making choices about what to do next such as adding, subtracting, replacing, or re-arranging things and re-running our ‘experiments’ to get things right.

Seeing complexity and simplicity

Even in cases where there appears to be simple answers, we may find that learning from ‘failure’ is more complex than we thought. A recent study looking at the Net Promoter Score (NPS) for marketing impact found just that. The NPS has been hailed as a simple, elegant means of capturing the likelihood that someone would recommend a product to someone else which is considered among the strongest endorsements of a brand, product or idea.

Christina Stahlkopf and her colleagues at C Space marketing sought to study how reliable the measure was in practice. What they found is that many people who would recommend a brand to another might also be critical of it. Consumers are more nuanced in their thinking than much of the past research gives them credit for. For example, someone might not like a particular product or service for themselves, but see the value for others and recommend it despite not liking the brand, product, or service.

Studies like this point to the opportunity to learn more from our customers, markets, clients, and communities by asking better, more nuanced questions. By seeing the complexity behind the simplicity we can learn more, understand more, and potentially do more, too.

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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