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Reading Innovation and the New Economy

Runnymede Theatre / Chapters

Runnymede Theatre / Chapters

Economic changes are transforming business and work itself in ways that are having consequences well beyond supply chains and jobs, but the way employment spurs learning. A look at a recent change at a Toronto bookstore hints at a future that suggests we may want to think about what kind of economy we want not just the one we have. 

I recently learned that the Chapters bookstore occupying the former Runnymede Theatre in Toronto will be shuttering as its lease is taken over by a major drug store chain.

The bookstore, pictured above and below, is among the most beautiful you will find anywhere. It is also a meeting place for parents (mostly moms) and children, offering one of the few spaces for young families to gather in the neighbourhood.

The loss of Chapters has caused an uproar in the community, ironically just as it did when it came into the once abandoned heritage building. Reporting on the story in the Toronto Star, business reporter Francine Kopun highlights some of the losses that are expected to the community:

“It’s a real loss for the neighbourhood,” said Jill Zelmanovits, 41, a mother of two children, ages seven and four.

“I would say my children have been there every week their whole lives.”

She said staff at the store greet her by name and it is a gathering place for new moms with kids in tow.

The story goes on to add:  “Schools and community groups hold fundraiser events in the space, said Ward 13 Councillor Sarah Doucette (Parkdale-High Park). Her office was inundated with calls from residents after the news broke. “We had an uproar like this when Chapters went in,” she said.”

The change from a theatre to a bookstore was disruptive just as the next change will be as Shoppers Drug Mart moves in. However, it is worth considering from the perspective of social systems and economies what this change will mean beyond the shift in products and services being offered at the home of the Runnymede Theatre.

Systems thinking change

Stroller Parking

Will the new drug store have stroller parking?

While we see retail change all the time, this particular move was more emblematic of a larger systems trend that is worth noting. If one is to look at the origin of the Runnymede Theatre and what it did, one starts to see some aspects of an economic shift that might be worth paying attention to.

When the theatre started as a vaudeville stage, the skill-sets required to run and grow the theatre were complex and portable. One needed to know about storytelling, performance, marketing, hospitality, logistics, and how to maintain a connection to the community to create the kind of shows that people wanted to pay for. These are skills that could easily be transferred into other contexts beyond the theatre, which made it an ideal place for engendering talent that could have transferrable benefit beyond one context. And as researchers like Keith Sawyer have noted, the benefits of theatre on creativity and group collaboration are significant.

The bookstore is a step down from that. The roles are fewer, the jobs are simpler, but at least the product is something that inspires learning and there are still benefits for the customers beyond products (much like the inspiration that theatre-goers received). Bookstore staff are best when they read and share what they read with their customers; it makes them better salespeople and stock clerks. The inclusion of a children’s space with related programming for moms and kids adds a community benefit as well as requiring and providing additional skills to the bookstore staff. These might not be as comprehensive as those gained from theatre, but as a system the bookstore still confers benefits beyond just selling books.

The next stage of the theatre is set for a drug store. If we take out the pharmacy (which is a minor part of the modern drug store’s revenue stream and purpose)  the remaining aspects of a drug store require little skill to operate. Stocking shelves, directing people to products, and ringing through purchases (if the self-checkout option isn’t available) requires little knowledge or skill and confers little benefit beyond pay. Fewer jobs are full-time and fewer skills are needed so the pay is likely lower for each staff member as one would expect from this. None of this is intended to dismiss the workers themselves or drug stores, but it’s difficult to imagine many supplemental benefits beyond raw product and pay garnered by having a drug store in the building; no group collaboration skills, no meeting place for families, no knowledge of current affairs, no storylines.

Designing economies

The story of the Runnymede Theatre is not about picking on the drug store, nor is it about being nostalgic for days gone by. It is about considering what kind of employment, community experiences, skills, and outcomes we get when we change our economy. As citizens and consumers we grow what we sow. Being mindful of what kind of things we ‘plant’ and the kind of experiences we pay for, demand, seek and design in our enterprises matters at a system level. Some might say that the market changed and that the theatre and its lease-holders are simply responding to that market, which is partly true. There is no one group that can or should be responsible for governing such shifts, but they are worth paying attention to. If we don’t, no one will.

No better place to pay attention to is Seattle, Washington and the home of Amazon. As the annual consumerist sprint that starts at Thanksgiving in the United States began, viewers of the news program 60 Minutes were treated to a look at Amazon’s prototype plan for drone-powered package delivery. Once again, we were seeing Amazon do what it has done time and again: innovate the business of retail.  Two weeks later, Canada Post announced that it was going to phase out home delivery in urban centres. (Soon, all mail will go to post office stations in centralized locations much like in rural communities).

Amazon is seeking to revolutionize the way products are shopped for, ordered and delivered from books to groceries and more. In an interview earlier in 2013 with Fast Company, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos outlined a bold plan for transforming the way products are ordered, promising the possibility of same day, even 2-hour delivery on anything a person needs. This is innovation at its clearest, yet are we innovating the systems that wrap around these new technologies and processes?

If drones are delivering our books, robots picking them from shelves, and computer programs taking the order in the first place, who is working? Yes, some computer programmers will be employed, but the world isn’t full of or needs billions of programs or apps. What does the future of work look like? What are our choices in this? What kind of systems do we want and are we prepared to shape them?

Greg Van Alstyne and Bob Logan defined design as “creation for reproduction” in a paper published in Artifact in 2007 (an earlier version is available here). Bezos and Amazon are designing the economy by creating tools, processes and ideas that are emergent and potentially self-replicating if spread. They are not the only ones with a say in the matter and every time we buy something, look at something and engage with a product or service we are voting with our wallet, consciousness and attention for what we want.

It is worth considering how we design for the emergence of an economy we want, not just what is delivered at the drug store or by drone.

Design Thinking, Design Making

Designing and thinking

Designing and thinking

Critics of design thinking suggest that it neglects the craft of products while advocates suggest that it extends itself beyond the traditional constraints of design’s focus on the brief. What separates the two are the implications associated with making something and the question: can we be good designer thinkers without being good design makers?

A review of the literature and discussions on design thinking finds a great deal of debate on whether it is a fad, a source of innovation salvation, or whether it is a term that fails to take the practice of design seriously.  While prototyping — and particularly rapid prototyping — is emphasized there is little attention to the manner in which that object is crafted. There are no standards of practice for design thinking and the myriad settings in which it could be applied — everything from business to education to the military to healthcare — indicate that there is unlikely to be a single model that fits. But should there be some form of standards?

While design thinking encourages prototyping there is remarkably little in the literature on the elements of design that focus on the made product. Unlike design where there is at least some sense of what makes a product good or not, there are no standards for what ought to emerge from design thinking. Dieter Rams, among the most vocal critics of the term design thinking, has written 10 principles for good design that can be applied to a designed product. These principles include a focus on innovation, sustainability, aesthetics, and usability.

These principles can be debated, but they at least offer something others can comment on or use as foil for critique. Design thinking lacks the same correlate. Is that a good (or necessary) thing?

Designing for process and outcome

Unlike design itself, design thinking is not tied to a particular product profile; it can be used to create physical products as easily as policies and programs. Design thinking is a process that is centred largely on complex, ambiguous problems where success has no pre-defined outcome and the journey has no set pathway. It is for this reason that concepts like best practices are inappropriate for use in design thinking and complex problem solving. Design thinking offers a great deal of conceptual freedom without the pressure to produce a specific outcome that might be proscribed by a design brief.

Yet, design thinking is not design. Certainly many designers draw on design thinking in their work, but there is no requirement to create products using that way of approaching design problems. Likewise, there is little demand for design thinking to produce products that would fit what Dieter Rams suggests are hallmark features of good design. Indeed, we can use design thinking to create many possible futures without a requirement to actually manifest any of them.

Design requires an outcome and one that can be judged by a client (or customer or user or donor) as satisfactory, exemplary or otherwise. While what is considered ‘good design’ might be debated, there is little debate that if a client does not like what is produced that product it is a failure on some level*. Yet, if design thinking produces a product (a design?), what is the source of the excellence or failure? And does it matter if anything is produced at all?

Herein lies a fundamental dilemma of design and design thinking: how do we know when we are doing good or great work?

Can we have good design thinking and poor design making?

The case of the military

Roger Martin, writing in Design Observer, highlighted how design thinking was being applied to the US Army through the adaptation of its Field Operations Manual. This new version was based on principles of complexity science and systems thinking, which encourage adaptive, responsive unit actions rather than relying solely on top-down directives. It was an innovative step and design thinking helped contribute to the development of this new Field Manual.

On discussing the process of developing the new manual (FM-05) Martin writes:

In the end, FM5-0 defines design as “a methodology for applying critical and creative thinking to understand, visualize, and describe complex, ill-structured problems and develop approaches to solve them” (Page 3.1), which is a pretty good definition of design. Ancker and Flynn go on to argue that design “underpins the exercise of battle command within the operations process, guiding the iterative and often cyclic application of understanding, visualizing, and describing” and that it should be “practiced continuously throughout the operations process.” (p. 15-16)

The manual’s development involved design thinking and the process in which it is enacted is based on applying design thinking to field operations. As unseemly as it may be to some, the US Army’s application of design thinking is notable and something that can be learned from. But what is the outcome?

Does a design thinking soldier become better at killing their enemy? Or does their empathy for the situation — their colleagues, opponents and neutral parties — increase their sensitivities to the multiplicities of combat and treat it as a wicked problem? What is the outcome in which design thinking is contributing to and how can that be evaluated in its myriad consequences intended or otherwise? In the case of the US Army it might not be so clear.

Craft

One of terms conspicuously absent from the dialogue on design thinking is craft. In a series of interviews with professionals doing design thinking it was noted that those trained as designers — makers — often referred to ‘craft’ and ‘materials’ in describing design thinking. Those who were not designers, did not**. No assessment can be made about the quality of the design thinking that each participant did (that was out of scope of the study), but it is interesting to note how concepts traditionally associated with making — craft and materials and studios — do not have much parallel discussion in design thinking.

Should they?

One reason to consider craft is that it can be assessed with at least some independence. There is an ability to judge the quality of materials and the product integrity associated with a designed object according to some standards that can be applied somewhat consistently — if imperfectly — from reviewer to reviewer. For programs and policies, this could be done by looking at research evidence or through developmental evaluation of those products. Developmental design, an approach I’ve written about before, could be the means in which evaluation data, rapid prototyping, design excellence and evidence could come together to potentially create more robust design thinking products.

We have little correlates with design thinking assessment.

The danger with looking at evaluation and design thinking is falling into the trap of devising and applying rigid metrics, best practices and the like to domains of complexity (and where design thinking resides) where they tend to fail catastrophically. Yet, there is an equal danger that by not aspiring to vision what great design thinking looks like we produce results that not only fail (which is often a necessary and positive step in innovation if there is learning from it), but are true failures in the sense that they don’t produce excellent products. It is indeed possible to create highly collaborative, design thinking-inspired programs, policies and products that are dull, ineffective and uninspiring.

Where we go and how we get there is a problem for design and design thinking. Applying them both to each other might be a way to create the very products we seek.

* It is interesting to note that Finnish designer Alvar Aalto’s 1933 three-legged children’s stool has been considered both a design flop from a technical standpoint (it’s unstable given its three legs) and one of the biggest commercial successes for Artek, its manufacturer.

** The analysis of the findings of the project are still ongoing. Updates and results will be published on the Design Thinking Foundations project site in the coming months, where this post will be re-published.

Fashionably Thinking About Systems and Consumption

Denim Fashion

In April 2013 the world was horrified to learn that more than one thousand people were killed in a Bangladeshi factory used to make largely low-priced clothes for Western fashion houses. As the stories of sadness, loss and survival emerged from that rubble so too did cries of indignation and disgust from human rights groups, business leaders, and the media about the true cost of cheap, fast fashion.

Some of this push has to do with greater social demands for “more of everything” .

We can speed up our supply chains and reduce the design-to-line time while producing desirable goods cheaply so why don’t we? When it is more convenient to get something new than take something old and refurbish it, why not do it?

The Cost of Fast and Cheap Fashion

This mindset of fast and cheap has enormous costs that are often hidden from view. Speaking about his own field of clothing manufacturing, Flint & Tinder CEO Jake Bronstein wrote in his company’s blog about the Bangladesh incident that killed more than 1100 workers . His words (caps in original) were:

THE INCIDENT AT THE BANGLADESH APPAREL FACTORY THAT CLAIMED 1000+  LIVES IS LESS AN ISSUE OF DOMESTIC VS. FOREIGN MANUFACTURING, THAN IT IS ABOUT FAST-FASHION AND THE HIDDEN COSTS OF DISPOSABLE RETAIL.

Bronstein has a stake in this game. His company is employing a business model that is centred on producing goods that last a long time, not ‘fast fashion’, even when the concept of an $8 T-shirt dominates the mass market. His company sells only a handful of products to begin with (rather than succumbing to fast fashion trends), are made in the United States in their entirety and meant to outlast their competitors, not just outsell them. This business model looks to create sustainable fashion, not fast fashion, which is more about disposable, quick response designs than durable products.

Bronstein makes a strong point and is trying to do something about it by creating an alternative option for consumers. There is a flourishing make-it-yourself/make-it-local market and movement that can be seen from Etsy through to the return of crafting and the growing popularity of the maker culture as seen in enormous events like the Maker Faires. This is changing the market landscape.

The Complexity of Change

At the same time there are also many myths about what the true cost of our choices are. Writing in the Huffington Post (Canadian Edition), Anne Theriault explores these in some depth pointing to the often classist, simplistic ways these issues get defined in talk about global manufacturing. Theriault challenges the idea that global outsourcing is all problematic, pointing to the jobs that are created often at relatively high standards for each region (and how there are relatively few others available), the comparable absence of affordable clothing selections for many of our poorest citizens at home, and the lack of manufacturing capacity in North America to provide alternative options for those on small budgets.

Theriault is not specifically defending globalization and off-shoring manufacturing, instead pointing out that simply stopping production in places like Bangladesh isn’t as simple as it looks without harmful consequences at home and abroad. The systems created to sustain the current models of economy, consumption, and product innovation are not easily halted without serious ramifications across the globe.

However, these models are also not sustainable. This is a hallmark wicked problem in the short term, but unlike true wicked problems this is one that can be potentially designed for change in the long term.

Designing Fashionable Change

Fashion is largely about design and thus its appropriate that design thinking might be useful in bringing about change in the way that the fashion industry operates (and how consumers support that industry).

Design thinking is employed in three key phases: problem finding, problem framing and problem solving*. We have a problem, that much is clear. But what is the frame of the problem? As both Jake Bronstein and Anne Theriault point out, fashion is about people before products to different ends. Neither highlighted aesthetics and identity when speaking about fashion; they spoke about livelihoods and values. They have framed the issue as one about human wellbeing and social and economic sustainability.

If that is the frame we start from, the next phase is to design a system that supports this expression of values. I surmise that wellbeing is about aesthetics and identity as much as the values behind it, even if we like to imagine we are above being pushed by such things (decades and volumes of social psychology and marketing research proves the point).

In a complex system it is more important than ever to distinguish oneself through markers and fashion is one of many that can do this. It’s not a surprise that complex societies with high levels of diversity are where the seeds of fashion emerged. It’s not just that fashion could emerge through this intersection of ideas, its that it necessarily had to.

If we accept the premise that fashion is useful and necessary, that it brings considerable social and economic benefit, but that the costs related to fast fashion and consumption are intimately tied to these benefits we can start to imagine new ways to design a system that supports personal expression, creativity, environmental sustainability, and social benefit simultaneously. This is only likely to happen once there is an embrace of the two sides of the current fashion industry.

Unfreezing the Mindset and Business Model

Social psychologist Kurt Lewin‘s planned model of change has been applied to complexity and found to be a useful way of viewing these kinds of issues. The planned component to change might seem at first seem at odds with complexity, but is very much at home with design.  From a design perspective, Lewin’s concept of ‘unfreezing’ a mindset around a problem opens up possibilities to create a new one in its place. The current mindset is set against tensions related to cost, employment, supply chain management, sustainability, and ethics.

Unfreezing this mindset opens up the possibilities of seeing spaces for synchrony. It also creates new space for business model innovation.

Bronstein’s recent initiative with Flint and Tinder to create the 10-year hoodie through Kickstarter is one result of unfreezing an innovation development model and creating a new market for a product that is normally designed to last far less than 10 years.

Crowd Supply is another venue that has sought to use values, quality, and local production as a driver of new product development by creating a hybrid funding model that marries Kickstarter with a conventional online retailer. The recently funded Wild Park Place jacket and Freelance backpack are some of the early funded fashion projects launched through this platform.

Another model is being implemented by denim manufacturers Gustin, who have taken a similar approach of crowd-funding production, but on a model-by-model basis within their product line. Gustin recognized that there was a lot of waste and costs to the traditional retail model of selling clothes to resellers and having to supply them with a set group of sizes and colours, only to have some returned, the costs raised, and much wasted. Now they take orders for specific pairs of jeans in batches, which allows them to fit somewhere between custom tailoring (one person, one product) and mass market (thousands of people, many products), reducing waste and lowering costs.

None of these are perfect (and its likely no model can be), but they all change the way the business model is set and offer some examples of ways to change the system as a whole, piece by piece. What makes these promising from a systems perspective is that these models can easily be replicated globally or potentially scaled up. There could be an Asian Crowd Supply, or a clothing maker in South America who could do the same thing. Crowd Supply is introducing new projects each month and denim maker Gustin has seen its runs increase over time as some evidence of the success of these models.

These do not fully address consumption — which is a big systems issue for our planet — but as large companies like Patagonia have shown, it is possible to create demand for products that can be repurposed, re-imagined, and redesigned to be less harmful to the environment, sustainable, high quality and economically rewarding. These start-ups are adding to that field.

Design is not just about fashion, it is about making sustainable, healthy, and ethical business models fashionable.

EverytimeYouSpendMoney

* These conventional phrases are somewhat misleading when dealing with complex phenomenon as problems are often not solved, but rather addressed in a manner that provides some optimal option for action that minimizes unwarranted negative side effects.

Image source from Pinterest; owner unknown.

Innovation, Design Thinking and the Folly of Fads

Designing ideas for flight

Innovation is at once everywhere and elusive. Understanding what it really is, how to inspire it, and how to avoid losing its real value in the hype might be the biggest and most ironic challenge for innovators yet. 

Psychologist, creativity researcher and systems thinker Keith Sawyer recently asked the question: Is innovation just a washed up trend? To support this thesis, he presents the following:

Evidence: The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday May 23, 2012) argues that the term “innovation” is now so widely used, it doesn’t really mean anything anymore–other than a very general notion of “change.” Longtime WSJ reporter Leslie Kwoh says “Businesses throw around the term to show they’re on the cutting edge….But that doesn’t mean the companies are actually doing any innovating.” And then she gives the biggest insult you can give to a trendy business term, in my opinion: she compares the word “innovation” to the washed-up buzzword “synergy.” Ouch, that hurts!

This makes a point. It’s hard not to question the term seeing that it’s almost everywhere. Earlier in the blog he points to how Bruce Nussbaum eventually added an entire section to Business Week on Innovation and Design to match the demand for news on both of those topics. But as Nussbaum himself has written about the term design thinking, the term innovation may also be on shaking ground from over or poor use. Ironically, this all comes at the time when we need what innovation stands for more than ever and the creative problem framing and solving tools that comes with design thinking.

What’s in a name?

The term innovation is generally described as the act of introducing something to new to create positive value. Design is the act of creating something with intent to produce value. It is no surprise that these two concepts go together so well. Design thinking is about applying conscious thought to the act of creating things those products, services, and policies that have value — it is about contemplation and action related to making things that we want and need. These are loose amalgams of definitions that I’ve come across in my research and reading over the past year in support of the Design Thinking Foundations project and capture much of what these words mean explicitly.

However, implicit in this language is a whole other set of values, prejudices and attitudes that extend the concepts beyond the explicit language into something cultural. One of the byproducts of this is found in overuse or adherence to the hype cycle. Now everything is innovative, when really it shouldn’t be. Sometimes what we are doing is working just fine and the need to create something new is unnecessary.

Yet, as change accelerates in many fields and complexity increases, the need to adapt and develop resilience will increase along with it as will the need to innovate in spaces where innovation is not a familiar term. It may not be needed everywhere, but it will be needed in more places more often with increasing urgency as the dynamic complexity of the worlds we’ve created increases. Even keeping things constant will require some adaptation.

To quote from Guiseppe di Lampedusa’s bookThe Leopard:  ”If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

What happens next?

But what if Keith Sawyer’s speculation is right and the term innovation is on the way out? What happens next? In response to his concerns about design thinking becoming a shadow of itself in the hands of organizations and practitioners who see it as a quick fix or a blunt instrument, Bruce Nussbaum has sought to explore and further develop a concept called creative intelligence. Having spoken to Nussbaum personally about this, I got the sense that his concerns were less that design thinking itself was problematic, but that the concept had reached a stasis in its application that no longer reflected the dynamic force it once did when he first championed it at Business Week.

It’s hard not to see parallels to innovation. While I agree with Nussbaum’s charge at what design thinking has become, I also don’t think it’s a lost concept (see the debate on the Design Thinking LinkedIn group to see evidence of this). I also think creative intelligence focuses on something different, not replaces design thinking. (Besides, we still have systems thinking, critical thinking and other forms of problem conceptualizing that have endured much debate). The problem is that it is far easier to talk about something than do it and talking too much can burn something out to the ears. Hence the reason catch-phrases never last long. Innovation is at risk and so, too, is design thinking.

Is this adaptive language use or a case of throwing the baby out with the proverbial bathwater?

If not innovation (and design thinking), then what?

The concern with throwing these terms out is that much of what passes for judgement on their worth is based on little evidence of effect. While innovation thankfully has enjoyed much research, design thinking lacks much empirical examples. However, in both cases, when the terms are most often written about or discussed in the media and popular social discourse it is rarely about evidence and nearly always on rhetoric. I am guilty of this, too. I often tweet or refer people to articles from blogs like Fast Company and FastCo Design that write heavily on design and innovation, yet present few empirical studies and lots of opinion.

To this, I point to today’s HBR Working Knowledge update from five scholars who have done much research on innovation and summarize their points quite well, including the idea that not all of us can or will be innovators (from Clayton Christensen).

What is the answer? Is it time to move on or shall we try to invigorate the discussion of concepts like innovation and design thinking with dialogue, evidence and (self-referentially) some innovation and design thinking to advance not only the discourse on these topics, but also their adoption, study and adaptation to help us tackle the complex, wicked and pervasive problems that seem to be growing in our world each day.

Photo: Make Art Not War by v_imagine-l used under Creative Commons Licence from Deviant Art

43 Steps to a Well-Prepared Design Strategist (via the design strategist)

I stumbled upon this list of “to-dos” and related resources aimed at preparing someone to serve as a design strategist. What I like about the post is the list of resources linked and embedded within. It’s not designed (no pun intended) to be prescriptive, but as a series of things to ponder as one moves into the field. Having engaged in this before, I wished I’d considered a few of these before starting out.

I came across this post thanks to the Design Thinkers group on LinkedIn, which has shown itself to be quite active and engaged.

43 Steps to a Well-Prepared Design Strategist You’re asked to serve as a design strategist in an innovation initiative at a large corporation. They’ve asked you to come in on Monday for a get-to-know-you session and an ideation over lunch. Are you ready? Here are some questions to ask yourself as you prepare for this new opportunity to let your design strategy talents shine. Here, as well, are some suggestions to help keep your saw sharp and your thinking sharper. Not in any order – skim the … Read More

via the design strategist

Failure Fetishism and the Language of Success

Failure is always an option

This month’s Harvard Business Review is focusing on failure, showcasing a concept that was once avoided at all costs. But is this new lexicon of success by failure really helpful?

The global design firm IDEO has a mantra that caught my attention when it was first shown to me many years ago.

Fail often to succeed sooner

The thinking behind this is that lots of ineffective ideas create the likelihood that one of them will be effective. In other words, to generate good ideas, you need to first generate a lot of bad ones.

This month, the Harvard Business Review, features a special issue on the subject of failure and how it impacts organizations and innovation.

It seems we have come a long way from a culture that once embraced the words of NASA flight director Gene Kranz who, in speaking of the efforts to save the Apollo 13 mission and crew, told his charges:

Failure is not an option

It is perhaps ironic that the Apollo 13 mission is held as one of greatest examples of creative problem-solving ever cited.

Failure is a tricky beast as it invokes a lot of emotion. Decades of formal education have taught us to fear failure and that it was a negative thing. It was one thing to get a low grade on an assignment, but to outright fail a course was (for some) a fate worse than death. It is for that reason that the widespread embracing of the concept seems so unusual.

In his column in HBR, Daniel Isenberg seeks to calm the enthusiasm for failure that has taken over much of the discourse on innovation:

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.

To deal with the anxiety part, Isenberg points to three strategies:

1. Accept failure as a natural part of doing business

2. Remove structural obstacles to reduce the objective risks of a failed venture

3. Turn failure into fodder

The last one is perhaps the most important for anyone seeking to make good from bad, but this language in itself is what I find problematic (including my use of the term “good” and “bad”). As Shakespeare’s Hamlet suggests:

Why, then, ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so

The concept of failure, as discussed above, hinges on language of fear and cultural expectations of success. In some cultures, this can be overly intense (see my post on Tiger Moms). Rather than viewing outcomes as failures or successes, might it not be worth considering a spectrum of effectiveness from “highly relevant discoveries” (making obvious strides towards achieving an objective) to “less relevant discoveries” (non-obvious strides towards an objective). It’s a small point, but one worth noting.

If we fear failure and it has been engrained as something to fear most of our life, any celebrating it now is going to fall on deaf (unconscious) ears. And if that is true, we will be losing opportunities to innovate. If people embraced failure all the time, HBR wouldn’t need a special issue.

Our entrainment to what we see as “success” also leads us to certain dominant perspectives of what that means, shutting down discourse on other ways of seeing the problem. My post yesterday on the Toronto slutwalk hints at this: if we focus on the sensational elements we miss the deeper meaning; by diving too deeply into an issue we risk missing ways to connect more broadly.

The entire success / failure language requires recasting the entire language into something less anxiety producing and more optimistic: a sort of Twitter Fail Whale for innovation. By removing the fear of discovery, we are much more likely to innovate and that is good for all of us.

Failing is fun

** Photo from tinou bou used under Creative Commons License from Flickr
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