This quote is widely attributed to Thomas Edison, although, as with most quotes, there is always a good chance that it’s apocryphal. It’s the sentiment of the quote, not it’s correct attribution, that I’d like to discuss in this article.
Culturally speaking, failure is often perceived as a negative event; something to be ashamed of and avoided at all costs. In everyday conversation failure is used to mock and degrade someone’s personal value. But what if we take a step back and look at the process of failure, and why it can be an invaluable (and fun) part of your culture, and what can be done to encourage a healthy attitude towards failure as part of a creative and innovative business ethic.
Failure as a Result
In science there is a saying ~ all results are good results. This is very similar to what Edison allegedly said. Even with a negative result, we’ve learned something. It may be how not to do something, or, in the case of a researcher at 3M, to accidentally discover the adhesive for post-it notes when trying to develop a super-glue. Thinking of failure as a valid result and understanding how we got to this result is the first step in switching up the negative connotation of failure to a positive one.
How do we get to failure? By simply being bold enough to try something new. It might be new to you as an individual, it might be something the company has never tried before or it might be something that is globally innovative. The scale of the attempt should not be a driving factor. Rather, it’s the willingness to be creative and experiment around an idea that sets on the path to failure, or indeed success. People and businesses that accept failure as a valid, worthwhile outcome are more likely to be associated with innovation and growth.
So how, as individuals and businesses, can we leverage the power of failure as a motivator?
It all comes down to changing one’s cultural view of failure, understanding how failure is a valid part of learning and personal growth, and dedicating time for failure.
Let’s start by thinking about the educational benefits of failure. I’m fascinated by the psychology of learning. I have been fortunate enough to spend time as a SCUBA diving instructor. It’s a hugely rewarding vocation, mostly because you’re helping people discover something about themselves. One of the most important aspects of coaching people is giving them time to take what they’ve learned from the educational materials, and experimenting in a safe environment. For example, an instructor could spend hours explaining how to hover in the water, using just your breathing to change your position in the water. Or, an instructor can explain the concept, get the students in a training pool, and let them experiment, practice and discover it for themselves.
This act of discovery is a far more rewarding experience than repeating, parrot-fashion, the theory. The safe space, in this case a training pool, encourages the SCUBA student to experiment, to get it wrong and to learn from each failure. In the great expanse of life on our planet, discovery necessarily has failure as a valid part of the process.
The ability to experiment, discover and fail safely is integral to Bloom’s Taxonomy, a set of three models that map the learning experience. In the revised cognitive model, experimentation is one of the activities at the pinnacle of the learning process. Experimentation requires the application of existing knowledge combined with an element of creativity to expand experience and grow knowledge. Failure, then, is as important to personal growth as it is to innovation.
Failure As A Software Development Tool
Failure has such a great influence as a source of inspiration and innovation that, in many of the leading, cutting edge tech businesses, it’s actually used as a starting point to problem solving. Starting out with something you know is going to fail is one of the core concepts behind test driven development. It’s a key step to stating, in code, the problem you need to solve, and how you plan to test if you’ve been successful.
Firstly, the software engineer writes a test that they know is going to fail. The run the test to confirm that it’s failed, then start work on solving the problem. The development cycle is very much “baby-steps” in that each goal of a project is broken down into tiny, bite-size chunks. Each of these chunks may have any number of tests written for them. All, or a subsection of all the tests are run each time the code is changed, checking that the new code works and the existing code hasn’t broken.
In essence, the aim of this approach to software development is to intentionally plan for failure, and use planned failure as a driver for innovation and problem solving.
Failure As A Coaching Tool
Learning has been so much a part of my life that I consider it to be an integral part of my character. In the past 30+ years, I have made a deliberate effort to schedule in learning and, because of this, I’ve built in time to fail. Why? Because failure is an incredibly powerful and useful tool in the pursuit of new knowledge.
Lets take for example a common experience, and one which I have encountered myself, failing a test or exam. The societal norm is to consider failure of an exam as a permanent state, as if, by some non-existent universal law, this is an unchangeable state. This cultural view of exams has a huge negative impact on perceived personal worth and desire to improve.
A much healthier and progressive view of exams in general, is that they are a snapshot at a point in time. In fact, most exams test the ability to repeat knowledge, instead of applying knowledge to new situations. The fact that most educational courses are pitched at passing the exam instead of applying knowledge is testament to this.
Rather than thinking of exams as a culmination of learning a particular subject, or segment of a subject, exams should be more thought of as a pointer of what needs to be learned, practiced or experimented with next. They are part of the cycle of learning, not the culmination of it. As we all learn at different rates and in different ways, it’s far more useful to use an exam as a way of planning future learning, than judging knowledge in a stressful and contrived 3 hours.
It’s unfortunate that many educational institutions choose not to share the marked paper with the students as this takes away the invaluable learning tool that the failure or success can provide. This adds some weight to the argument that formal exams are a much about institutions validating their teaching methods as they are about encouraging a healthy attitude to learning, where failure is a valid result and should be used to guide one’s personal learning goals.
So, if you find yourself in a situation where you have a low exam score, or a failed exam result – don’t fret. In the greater scheme of things, the Sun will rise again in the morning and your opportunity to learn and grow is the same as the day before. In this context, failure can be used as an inspiration to continue your learning path, fill any gaps in knowledge and maybe take the exam again or, more importantly, continue to make a positive contribution to society. After all, an exam is just a 3 hour (or thereabouts) snapshot in a lifetime of learning.
A Safe Environment To Fail
As businesses, leaders, coaches and individuals we can encourage development by taking way the fear of failing, and actively promoting it as a valuable learning and innovation tool. We can choose to make time for failure, and thus for creativity, by setting aside time to encourage experimentation. Some of the most innovative companies, such as Google and Tesla have this built into their work culture.
Many software developers are familiar with “hack-a-thons”, time set aside specifically to try out new stuff, exchange ideas and experiment with new concepts. The idea of a “hack-a-thon” is not limited to the software industry though, and can be used by any organisation, business or peer-group as a way to encourage innovation by removing the fear of failure. There should never be any expectations from a hack-a-thon, just a chance for a group of people to look at ways to solve problems or expand on ideas.
Taking this idea one step further is to actively build in time to the working schedule to experiment, discover and learn. In some situations it may be sensible to make this a sizeable chunk of the working week, one day or afternoon for example. In other situations, less frequent, but still regular sessions may work better. The key concept, though, is to provide that safe space where failure is seen as a positive part of the process, not a negative effect.
Failure Is Fun; Failure Is Your Friend
The thing to take away from this article, then, is that failure is your friend, and that, removing the negative connotation of failure will actively encourage discovery,experimentation and innovation. Failure in itself is a valid and valuable outcome so by making failure a positive and integral part of your personal and business culture, you are unlocking the potential to create and grow.
About the Author
Stu Last is a software and web application developer with over 30 years experience in working in a variety of fields including telecoms, marketing, defence, musical education and leisure sports industries. He has also spent a lot of his professional and personal life coaching friends, colleagues and customers learn how to learn new skills, overcome learning obstacles and develop their own approach to personal development. Stu is the founder of Spyced Concepts, a software innovations start-up based in the heart of Cornwall’s blossoming tech industry.
Contact the Author: you can contact Stu by emailing email@example.com