These days, we hear a lot about the importance of failure to innovation. Since everyone wants to innovate, it follows that everybody must learn to fail. On this basis, it would appear to make sense to fail a lot. Indeed, “fail early, fail often” has become something of a mantra in Silicon Valley and other centres of creativity.
Leaving aside the notion that it could be that some people hit with their first idea (or at least the first they tell anybody about), it is certainly not right that all failures are good. Nevertheless, the acceptance of failure as part of the process of building an enterprise is at the heart of the “fail early, fail often” approach and its associated concept of “lean start-ups”. Rather than betting the farm on one big idea, it is better to try lots of little things and test them on sectors of the market before adapting the original idea as necessary and then going for a full-scale launch, says the thinking. So far, so good. But only if those involved are learning from the process. In short, not all failures are created equal.
One who might want to reflect on this is Arsene Wegner, the hugely experienced and highly respected manager of the English Premier League football club Arsenal. After a weekend that saw his team defeated (against the run of play) by a much-criticised and commented-upon Manchester United, Wegner has been widely accused of allowing his team to fall prey to the weaknesses that have historically haunted it – namely, being so focused on attack that it is highly vulnerable to counter-attacks from the opposition. After this happened twice (and nearly three times) in quick succession in the latest game, the club’s second largest shareholder, Alisher Usmanov, was reported by the Independent newspaper to have accused the manager of letting his principles stand in the way of success. “It’s only when you admit your mistakes that you can get rid of them,” he was quoted as saying.
That is true. But Anjali Sastry and Kara Penn would probably see it as only part of the answer. The authors of Fail Better: Design Smart Mistakes and Succeed Sooner (just published by Harvard Business Review Press) argue that, while innovation obviously involves stepping into the unknown, it is possible to set out a framework that can improve the chances of success. Sastry, a lecturer in system dynamics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Penn, a former fellow at MIT who founder a consultancy focused on non-profit and social enterprises, believe that individuals and organizations alike can make better use of the principles of project management to create the conditions in which they can “fail better”, to coin a phrase that was actually apparently coined by the writer Samuel Beckett and has lately taken on a life of its own.
At the heart of their method are three steps: