Innovation – It Was Never About Failure
Posted by Plish on May 29, 2013
In my last post about the IIT Design Strategy Conference, I mentioned that Bruce Nussbaum presented on what it means to move from a design centered, to a creativity centered, paradigm. One thing in particular Nussbaum noted was the shift from celebrating failure (fail fast, fail often) to gaming/play!. He summarizes his perspective in a blog post about fetishizing failure.
When he first mentioned it at the conference, I wrote down, and circled, the following rebuttal in my notebook:
“Failure IS Play!”
I’ve been chewing on that for the last week, and while I understand the gist of what Nussbaum was getting at, in the context of design and innovation, it’s an oversimplification to simply say we need to move from failure to gaming.
A couple weeks back I wrote a piece entitled, “When Success is Bad – The Math Behind Why Failure is Essential.” I used the word ‘failure’, but in actuality it’s probably closer to a Nussbaumian perspective.
You see, no one really thinks failure is what’s happening when we say, “Fail Early, Fail Fast, Fail Often.” What we’re really saying is:
The quicker we can understand the interplay between all the variables in a system/product, the quicker we get ahead of the competition.
Learn Early, Learn Fast, Learn Often…
Failure, as Nussbaum points out in the above article, is indeed painful and can be limiting. There is a finality to the term failure that is unforgiving. When a bridge ‘fails’ it goes down and people get hurt. When there’s a power ‘failure,’ electricity simply isn’t there. Failures are an absence of success, and as voids they carry no information other than there’s no success to be found there.
Success, contrary to Nussbaum’s assertion that one can learn as much or more from success, is, as I pointed out in my “Why Success is Bad…” post, not educational at all if things work and we don’t know why they work. We’ll go along happy as larks thinking all is well until things go bad.
Success can also be a void.
No, strictly speaking, we learn not from failure or success. We learn from probing, through curiosity, tinkering, experimenting. The instant we allow there to be voids of ‘failure’ and ‘success’, there is no possibility for learning, for growth. It’s only when we step back and ask, “Where am I going? How will I get there? How does this event help or hinder the journey?” that design/innovation can occur.
“Where am I going? How will I get there? How does this event help or hinder the journey?” What do these questions look like?
They look like the type of questions we would ask when playing a game! No one fails or has success in a game because favorable or unfavorable outcomes can change the next time the game is played. Like the computer in the movie ‘WarGames,’ running through multiple scenarios, one could say it was failing early, failing fast, and failing often. That wouldn’t be entirely accurate however, because the computer was only playing – and therein lies my beef with Nussbaum (if it can even be called a ‘beef’. )
People use the word ‘failure’, but they’ve never really meant the word ‘failure.’ Failure was never really a part of the old design paradigm, (but it is a part of our language.) If people were designing, they were playing all along…
When I was a kid, my mom or dad would call from the other room, “What are you doing?” Sometimes I was purposefully moving toys or figurines, or designing and building worlds that blended reality and imagination, coloring, creating and appreciating beauty, sometimes taking clocks apart to see what makes them tick… but regardless, my response would be: