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The Role of Failure in Innovation

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Failure is defined as “the state or condition of not meeting a desirable or intended objective and may be viewed as the opposite of success”.
I was at a round table event recently at which, interestingly, the topic open to the table was ‘failure’.  A blog post by Gemma Bull, Head of Innovation at Save the Children, helped to frame the discussion and the points it raises are perfectly well articulated so I won’t rehash those here.

What I did think was interesting was that around the table were representatives from all walks of life, all had been drawn in by the topic of failure, all had an interest in failure as a concept, all had experienced (I am deducing from the session) forms of failure in various aspects of the work they were engaged in. We had an excellent discussion with some really interesting examples, many cited in Gemma’s blog, being discussed and some interesting considerations were raised. However, despite all the experience around the table, it was, as I think is often the case with topics such as this, very difficult to arrive at meaningful solutions to the questions raised and the challenges presented.

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At another event recently, the launch of a new think tank, Business Innovate, founded by Crispin Williams, one of the attendees raised an interesting point about there being a change in corporate culture in the city, moving from a culture where people were trained, nurtured and allowed to succeed (or fail) over time, to one where underperformance in the short term is now terminal. The bottom x% are not given a chance to learn, develop, correct and build, they are culled.

Failure has become an endpoint, where to be failing is the same as having failed and an absolute. Short-termism driven by an obsession with near term financial performance measures are stifling innovation, stifling the risk-taking cultures that should underpin the quest for enhancement and improvements to the status quo.

I would like to suggest that we need to urgently reassess this stigma with failure, that we need to reposition failure along the innovation pathway and allow for more entrepreneurial practices to flourish. We should not encourage failure, but we certainly should discount the value we can derive from failure. Who are we to even define failure, surely one person’s failure is another’s opportunity. Amazon, an undeniable success, practically failed several times (they were out of money and almost out of time on more than one occasion) before their time finally arrived.

I was recently introduced to the great organisation Failforward.org.  This was the final piece of the puzzle that prompted me to write this post. I will leave you with their mantra “Failure happens…from it you should learn, innovate and build resilience”, and with that I’m off to try something new and see where it takes me!

Author: Simon Hill

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