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A few words on 'failure'

Throughout this course you may have spotted a recurring feature – the central role of accidents, mistakes, and failure.

Right back in Week 1, amongst our review of historic innovators (Step 1.8) and summary of creative habits (Step 1.9), we said that embracing failure was a critical habit to adopt. However, it’s sometimes difficult to accept that something didn’t go to plan, and keep going.

So, as we come to the end of the programme we wanted to reiterate this valuable lesson.

Here are four reasons, from the four weeks of this course, to embrace failure as a means of innovating:

Reason 1: Innovative and original ideas are hard to find. You must explore a lot of dead-ends to find something somewhere that no-one else has looked before. Resilience, persistence and self-belief are important characteristics that emerge in response to failure.

“The greatest originals are the ones who fail the most, because they’re the ones who try the most… you need a lot of bad ideas to get to a few good ones.” Adam Grant (2016)

Reason 2: The more complex the situation or problem, the less likely that any single action will lead to success. However, if the Cynefin Framework we outlined in Week 2 (Step 2.8) is to be believed then the best course of action to solve a chaotic problem is to act, to do something, because that helps you better understand what is going on and narrows your search from that point on. Failures help us learn, hone skills, and gain knowledge.

Reason 3: Failures can actually lead to accidental breakthroughs, as we discovered at the start of Week 3 (see Step 3.2). ‘Failures’ led to penicillin and the Post-it note. Even when failures are not in themselves breakthroughs, they can be stepping stones to future breakthroughs. Therefore, they should be encouraged, to create the right environment for best-practice brainstorming (see Step 3.10).

Reason 4: Failing fast is a strategy. Take the ‘lean start-up’ advice of Eric Ries and learn through rapid, small failures rather than slow catastrophic ones. Take your ideas and assumptions out into the world and try to fail forward! (See Step 4.3). In Week 3 we talked about being luckier (see Step 3.7) and suggested that the strategies of ‘lucky’ people included keeping an open mind and being willing to look for the positive upside in whatever events befell us. That’s what Edison was doing when he said: “I’ve got lots of results. I know several thousand ways that don’t work!”.

So, as former Chancellor of the University of Bristol, Sir Winston Churchill, is believed to have said:

“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

But don’t just believe us, in the next step our graduate case studies share their views on failure too.

Grant, A. (2016), The surprising habits of original thinkers, TED talk, recorded February 2016 at TED2016

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This article is from the free online course:

Unleash Your Potential: Innovation and Enterprise

University of Bristol

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