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What happens when innovation fails?


How do you deal with failure? Say, your startup company flounders, or your new product flops, or you simply get fired?

That’s the question posed by Whitney Johnson, writing for the HBR.org Blog Network. She admits that her initial response to failure is despondency and pessimism.

However, she adds: “As I have grappled with my own this-just-may-break-me failures, I am increasingly convinced that dreaming must be a process, an engine of experimentation.

“As we practise innovating we are propelled up a personal learning curve – and we begin to accomplish our dreams. But implicit in daring to disrupt the status quo is daring to fail. As we learn by doing and do by learning something will eventually (and inevitably) not work.”

Johnson quotes former DARPA official Ken Gabriel, who said: “An important part of disruption is having the nerve to take on a really big failure.”

For those who are keen to use failure as a tool to help them innovate more effectively, Johnson offers the following advice:

1) Acknowledge sadness. When you envision a golden future that doesn’t become a reality, it’s natural to feel sadness. Johnson says it’s important to grieve, insisting that sublimating sadness risks the loss of one’s passion, which is “an essential lubricant for the engine of innovation”.

2) Don’t be ashamed. You shouldn’t let the failure define you, or “the millstone of shame will drown you and your dreams”. Johnson explains: “According to the groundbreaking research of shame and vulnerability expert Dr. Brené Brown, this is especially acute for those involved in professional sports, the military, and corporate life.

“Paraphrasing from the book Daring Greatly, Brown writes, ‘When the ethos is kill or be killed, control or be controlled, failure is tantamount to being killed.’ Being perceived as weak elicits tremendous shame.”

Without shame, the drag on innovating is eliminated and you can “accelerate back into daring”.

3) Learn the right lesson. Johnson takes inspiration from the author J. K. Rowling, who said: “Rock bottom became the solid foundation upon which I rebuilt my life.”

Faced with interim failures, learning the right kind of lesson is key – this what Lean Startup guru Eric Ries calls “validated learning”.

Ask yourself: what valuable truth did I discover about the present and future by failing? Ries insists: “Learning is the essential unit of progress for startups.”

Johnson adds that learning from failure is “a basic unit of progress for dreaming”.

The author concludes that “in a world in desperate need of innovation, it’s time to bury shame and to see failure for what it is – an opportunity to learn valuable truths and a signal that our startup, job, product or idea matters, really matters, so much so that we are willing to invest not only our minds, but our hearts”.

Put Failure In Its Place
Whitney Johnson