The InnoCentive paper by Stefan Lindegaard I wrote about earlier, “Embrace Failure to Build a Stronger Innovation Culture,” is excellent.  Another useful discussion of failure occurred at the Clinton Global Initiative’s 2012 university gathering (CGI-U), held at George Washington University.  Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong:  Adventures in the Margin of Error, moderated a panel entitled, “The Wisdom of Failure:  Building a Culture of Creative Problem-Solving.”  

Panelists were Robin Chase, Founder & CEO of Buzzcar; Cheryl Dorsey, PhD, President of the venture-capital firm, Echoing Green; Biz Stone, founder of Twitter; and Ashifi Gogo, PhD, CEO of Sproxil and holder of the first PhD in Innovation from Dartmouth University. 

This group of experts in failure and success offered three major lessons, all of which resonate with Lindegaard’s paper.

First, all agreed with Buzzcar founder Robin Chase that you need to face mistakes fast, and move on.  It might be (will be) embarrassing, but, as Chase drily observed, “It’s not the worst thing that ever happened in humanity.”  Getting stuck in the hole is far worse than making a mistake in the first place.  

Biz Stone railed against the cultural attitude that admitting mistakes is a show of weakness, even professional suicide.  Stone maintains that, in fact, failure look great on a resume:  if you can show a high level of learning from a smart effort that didn't work out, you're showing brains, courage, and resilience, all attractive qualities to worthy employers. “To succeed spectacularly you have to be willing to fail spectacularly,” he argued.  Cheryl Dorsey, the President of Echoing Green, agreed.  The surest route to permanent failure, she noted, is being afraid to start.  Success in innovation requires a high level of comfort with uncertainty, complexity, and screwing up. 

However -- and this is lesson #2 -- all also agreed that mistakes are often costly, and all mistakes are not equal.  Some mistakes are inevitable when you’re trying something truly new, but stupid mistakes are not inevitable.  The panelists’ strong advice:  learn as much as you can from others, do not replicate their mistakes, and never make the same mistake twice. 

Finally, they agreed that another hallmark of a successful innovative culture is iterative speed.  Robin Chase stressed that perfectionism is the deadly enemy of forward progress.  The successful innovative culture not only tolerates but anticipates failure:  it gets out good drafts quickly, and revises in response to community feedback.  Iterative, speedy releases of “minimal viable products” shorten the product development cycle by eliciting critical information, which is used to improve the final product. 

These lessons are as valuable for the non-profit in the process of developing new programs as they are for businesses developing new products.  Precisely because our work is intended to significantly improve human life, mistakes in judgment and design can be costly indeed, especially if they are not quickly acknowledged and addressed.  Using design thinking principles – beginning in empathy to thoroughly understand clients’ experience, and proceeding with rapid iteration and learning – can help the non-profit create a culture that tolerates the “honorable failures” that, well-used, result in greater effectiveness.

My brief summary of this CGI-U panel captures some of the major points but little of the flavor of this lively exchange.  I hope you’ll take a listen yourself and let me know what you take away from it.



05/25/2016 7:15am

People are learn through your mistake and with the passage of time failure chance are decrease. More often than not innovation is likely to bring a change of culture in an organization.

04/23/2017 8:16pm

When someone gives me pieces of advice, I instill in my mind that I will listen to them and swear to myself that I won't make the same mistake, as much as I can. By the way, you said that perfectionism is the deadly enemy of forward progress. I definitely agree with you. Sometimes the reason why we remain stagnant is that we manipulate and control ourselves, to the point that we become desperate to strive for perfection. We must learn to aim for progress, not for perfection. Those two have really different meanings.

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