I’ve been thinking a lot about “failure” lately –

·         about how powerhouse innovators valorize “failure” as necessary learning (“fail faster,” “fail forward”);
·         about how curious it is that the English language offers no adequate word that encapsulates this positive view of failure (the multitude of alternatives for “failure” include blunder, fizzle, flop, flounder, catastrophe, bomb, fiasco, be ruined, and hit the skids); and 
·         about how failure in some contexts is, in fact, disastrous. 
This is a topic widely discussed these days in both for-profit and non-profit businesses.   My next few posts examine three interesting discussions of failure.

“Smartfailing” – essential learning from a smart try

InnoCentive is the global leader in crowdsourcing innovative solutions to important business, social, policy, scientific, and technical challenges by inviting tens of thousands of people to compete to provide ideas.  The organization’s recent white paper, “Embrace Failure to Build a Stronger Innovation Culture,” authored by Stefan Lindegaard, is smart, efficient, and thought-provoking. 

Lindegaard argues that one of the biggest failures a business can make is failing to learn from “failures.”  He cites author Paul Sloane’s distinction between “honorable failure” – in which something new has been tried unsuccessfully – and “incompetent failure” – which results from lack of effort or competence in standard procedures.  Lindegaard offers the term “smartfailing” to capture both honorable failure and an organization’s success in learning from it.

Lindegaard builds on entrepreneur Steve Blank’s observation that successful innovators go through six stages when faced with failure.  Blank’s first five stages mirror Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages ofgrief in response to death:  1 – shock and surprise; 2 – denial; 3 – anger and blame; 4 – depression; and 5 – acceptance.  Blank adds a 6th stage – insight and change – to capture the potential creative outcome of failure.  Unsuccessful innovators – and most businesses Lindegaard has surveyed – never get past stage 4: depression.  And, he found, way too much time is wasted in the anger and blame of stage 3.  In fact, failing to get past stage 4 is a determinant of real failure, as opposed to “smartfailure.”

Lindegaard’s prescription for successfully getting past stage 4 and into stages 5 and 6 requires serious emotional and intellectual discipline on the part of innovators and organization leaders.  Lindegaard’s Rx includes -- 

.            taking responsibility; 
.            understanding what went wrong; 
.            being transparent and communicating better; 
.            rewarding behaviors, not just outcomes;and
.            educating up and down.  

I don’t think any organization can succeed in such rigorous practice without having undertaken – consciously or in a very rare natural developmental course – an experience something like the expressive change (or “inscaping”) process described by Tana Paddock and Warren Nilsson.

I hope you’ll read Lindegaard’s paper and let me know what you think.



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