Why I’m gonna fail harder

Erlend T. Hovgaard
May 20, 2012 · 3 min read

Creativity is vital for innovation. And, in fact, the ability to innovate has essentially replaced raw materials, labour and capital as the key sources of economic value. Some form of creativity is now the primary source of competitive advantage in the developed world, according to for example economist Richard Florida, as I wrote about in a section of my dissertation.

But how can creativity and good ideas be encouraged? Well, start with not hindering it. One highly typical way of killing creativity is to deter failure. A work environment where people are afraid to fail is doomed to be thinking inside the box and creating safe, but bad and very few new ideas.

In Silicon Valley they have a special word for failure: Pivoting. In perhaps the worlds most innovative cluster, failure just means some change of focus. “Failure, and how companies deal with failure, is a very big part of innovation,” says the Silicon Valley entrepreneur Judy Estrin, a founder of seven high-tech companies and author of a book on innovation. Failures caused by sloppiness or laziness are bad. But “if employees try something that was worth trying and fail, and if they are open about it, and if they learn from that failure, that is a good thing.”

This old, but great ad with Michael Jordan explains an aspect of it well:

Grey, the communications agency, recently started handing out the “Heroic Failure” award for taking risks. This was because they were worried that fast growth at the agency was making employees “a little more conservative, maybe a little slower,” Tor Myhren, the unit’s head, says. Grey New York has more than doubled to 900 employees since 2008.

“I thought rewarding a little risk-taking was potentially an answer,” Myhren says. The award is for ideas that are “edgier or riskier, or new and totally unproven.”

Correspondingly, the ingenious Sir Ken Robinson said in a legendary and highly recommended TED video: “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

Failure is an irreplaceable ingredient in the creative process. Surely, failures will be a part of the process of creating anything where quality is determined by subjective judgment. Failure should be embraced, yet that doesn’t mean that you should think too much about failures after the fact. Rather, you should communicate ideas often and as they appear. When you think you have a good idea, you should sell the sh*t out of it, but also be quick to dismiss it if someone else has a better idea or a good counter-argument. I say this especially with marketing in mind, but of course it applies to everything that requires innovativeness and originality. Fail fast and fail often.

Image for post

This is a picture of a wall inside ad agency Wieden + Kennedy made out of 100,000 pushpins. “The easy way would be to do the lettering as pushpins and leave the wall blank. They chose the hard way. It’s a perfectly executed concept”, Kennedy said in the celebrated documentary Art & Copy. “Try again. Fail again. Fail better”, as Samuel Beckett wrote.

Even if firms can overcome the stigma of failure, how exactly are bosses to know which potential innovations to kill? Mr Christensen, author of “The Innovator’s Dilemma”, believes he has cracked the code. He says it can require unlearning some of the things that managers often accept as golden rules. A typical example is the dangerous practice of spending too much time and money pleasing your best customers, which can result in the alienation of the majority of customers.

Hovgaard’s notebook

Irregular musings from a business designer

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