This article is co-authored by Kelly Ann Cunningham, and innovate change alumni Emma Blomkamp. It is the fourth in a series of articles about our mindsets for social innovation.
Being comfortable with failure is a key mindset for social innovation. A mindset is a way of being and thinking, rather than a tool or method. Given the scale and complexity of today’s social challenges, we need different ways of thinking and doing. The personal and professional stigma attached to failure continues to be a significant barrier to innovation.
For many of us ‘failure’ evokes a sinking, somewhat nauseous feeling in the pit of our stomach. For others, failure is simply an unbearable and nightmare-ish feeling, to be avoided at all costs. Let’s be honest, failure is never comfortable and pretending it can be seems a little naive. As social innovators, becoming more comfortable in the discomfort of failure is useful and necessary.
When we talk about being comfortable with failure, we don’t mean deliberately setting out to fail, or repeating past mistakes over and over again. We’re certainly not talking about life-threatening, careless mistakes that cause needless harm to vulnerable people, or slip-ups easily avoided with deeper thought and better planning.
Instead, we’re interested in the failures that can come from trying something new or different; failures that push the boundaries of existing attitudes, assumptions, or common practice. If we want to achieve different outcomes, we have to accept that some of our ideas for getting there won’t work. If we want to attempt transformative change, we have to mentally prepare ourselves for some spectacular failures. Facing the possibility of failure is about being honest, realistic and daring.
We acknowledge that when we set out to create something new, failure may be hiding around the corner, to collide with some, or all, of our solutions or ideas that don’t work in the real world. Instead of playing it safe to avoid failure, we choose to embrace the possibility the idea might fail and move on with trying. We choose to calmy hold onto two possible realities at any one moment: it may, or may not work.
Accepting failure doesn’t mean abandoning success. Getting comfortable with failure doesn’t mean having a readymade excuse for everything we mess up. Reflecting on failure need not mean wallowing in self-doubt, eternally labelling ourselves ‘a failure’; pessimism; or criticism. Rather, embracing failure allows us to pause, notice, reflect and learn, and then continue striving for better outcomes.
The failure of an idea need not diminish our self-worth. Becoming comfortable with the possible failure of ideas and solutions requires us to detach ourselves; our ego; emotions; and sense of personal worth from our ideas. It requires us to re-define “I failed”, to “the idea/concept/model failed”. While we may have helped to bring an idea to life, when ideas greet the world they take on a life of their own.
Sometimes we realise a whole project, service or model is based on a flawed assumption. Other times, we apply an idea that worked many times before, but this time it doesn’t. Instead of viewing these things as personal or professional failings, we see them as part of the social innovation process, necessary in getting closer to a solution that improves people’s well-being.
Dispelling the illusion of eureka moments. We’re often told that success and brilliant ideas come to talented, creative people who work hard. We’re told legends of lone geniuses happening across brilliant ideas through a combination of alchemy, born-talent, and creativity (often happening in garages, apparently). These illusions seldom true, and unhelpful to perpetuate. Instead, we need to realise that many ‘lightbulb moments’ arrive after many failed experiments.
Holding on lightly, not tightly. Many of us have been encouraged to stand up for and hold dearly to our own ideas, and fight for what we believe in. Holding tightly to our ideas doesn’t serve us well in social innovation. By contrast, we need to hold our ideas lightly, allowing them to see and know the world we intend them to live in, while also allowing them to evolve, change, iterate and maybe even get dropped. If we are not willing to do this, we often end up implementing solutions that fail due to a lack of testing. Ironic, isn’t it, that we hold them tightly to avoid failure, and they still meet failure despite our best efforts?
Small, not epic failings. Not all failure is created equal, different failings have different implications, and different risks. A failed workshop activity has significantly less impact than a failed national initiative. Part of the social innovation process is prototyping early and often prior to implementation. These vital low-cost experiments allow us to test whether something will work. Naturally, throwing out a paper prototype is much easier than discarding a workforce, purpose-built facility, or retracting a bold public promise. The idea of testing early, and often, allows us to remove our assumptions, and take small considered risks before we begin implementation. Small, safer failings.
Good intentions aren’t enough. While we can say ‘we should all be comfortable with failing’, the reality is many of us aren’t supported, encouraged, or even allowed to fail. It’s important teams and organisations embrace the possibility of failure as a core part of the social innovation process. If we’re not allowed to fail, we’re often forced to implement things not fit for purpose, that don’t quite work, and eventually wind up wasting hundred, thousands, or millions of dollars. Further, a culture where failure isn’t allowed leads to hiding the truth, anxiety, and missed learning for everyone.
Vulnerability, resilience and persistence. People with these qualities are able to fail and try again. They don’t avoid failure, hide it, or pretend it never happened. Instead, they sit in the discomfort until they see what went wrong, why it didn’t work as planned, and what they could do differently next time. Then they get up and try again. They’re willing to invite others into the process to assess the failure, and to recognise we all need each other far more than we’re willing to admit.
So, how do I get comfortable with failure?
It can take time to build failure muscles and the resilience to feel comfortable in the inevitable discomfort of failure. Not everyone is ready to talk openly about their own failings, or is skilled enough to stand back and do an honest appraisal. Many workplaces and sectors don’t have a culture that facilitates honest reflection without limiting one's career prospects in the process.
A tight-knit Fail Club can be a great way to develop the resilience and reflective capabilities we need to fail well, in a safe space. Emma Blomkamp, who worked as a part of the innovate change team for three years, was part of a fail club. Her learning, together the wisdom of her club colleagues, were super valuable for our failure muscle development. We value carving out time as a team to reflect on failure.
Naturally, we don’t set out to fail, or intentionally set ourselves up for failure. Instead, we acknowledge failure may be hiding out around the corner. We don’t run away from it, or play it safe to avoid failure. Instead, we choose to embrace the possibility of failure and move on. Onwards and upwards, ever learning.