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Among Six Types Of Failure, Only A Few Help You Innovate

In our counterintuitive embrace of failure, we may be conflating different kinds of failure, and doing so at some risk. Here's a guide to failing right.

Fail early and fail often. I use that phrase over and over again in teaching the design process. Borrowed from the world of computer programming, it expresses the urgency of getting iterations out into the world early in the process so that they can be tested, debugged, redesigned, and refined. The sooner in the process one does it, the more likely one can bake meaningful adjustments into the final product. To me, this is a golden rule of design.

In embracing failure, we're conflating its different forms.

But I?m puzzled of late by how effortlessly the word "failure" has slipped into the design lexicon, and I've been wondering what the unintended effects of this warm, welcoming embrace of failure might portend. Over and over, I hear designers and design educators gleefully bandy the word around. Failfaires are even popping up in cities across the country to provide a forum for failures. Recently, at a United Nations gathering to announce a report titled 'Disaster Relief 2.0,' a political activist championed the importance of failure - — and the admission of failure — in reckoning with the development of new global systems of information sharing. Here again, failure seems to play a positive role akin to its conceptual cousin, "transparency." In other words, the more honest and candid we can be about what works and what doesn't work, the sooner we'll be able to fix what doesn't and make it better.

Most of the time, I?m in complete agreement with this sensibility, but what concerns me is that in this counterintuitive embrace of failure we may be conflating different kinds of failure, and doing so at some risk. Perhaps all this is a necessary antidote to capitalism's "success at any cost" mentality. But I have a creeping sense of anxiety that the rise in the rhetoric of failure dovetails in troubling ways with a shift toward esteem building in child raising and general education — in other words, trophies for the last place team, too. And not to sound like a hard-driving, unforgiving "tiger mother," but I do wonder what this ubiquitous positive vibe surrounding failure really means for a nation in decline on almost every measure of productivity, achievement, and social equity. Coincidence?

I have seen too many bold social innovation projects — ambitious in their desire to enact real change — culminate in a collective excitement over the fact that, while the project itself was a failure, it was a great success for the designers. But hold on! Anyone who has experienced staggering failure knows that it is ugly, painful, and psychically destructive. It haunts you when you can't sleep in the wee hours of the night and it can threaten longstanding, valued relationships. Clients may turn away from you, supporters lose confidence in you, and there's a profound and, at times, corrosive level of self-questioning that ensues.

Thus, in order to better distinguish these conflicting kinds of failure, we need a failure spectrum — from devastating to productive — that allows us to differentiate among these different modalities. And like the Eskimo's many words for snow, each type of failure conveys slightly different qualities and characteristics, helping to shed light on what exactly we mean when we say something fails.

Abject failure

This is the really dark one. It marks you and you may not ever fully recover from it. People lose their lives, jobs, respect, or livelihoods. Examples: British Petroleum's Gulf oil spill; mortgage-backed securities.

Structural failure

It cuts — deeply — but it doesn't permanently cripple your identity or enterprise. Examples: Apple iPhone 4's antenna; Windows Vista.

Glorious failure

Going out in a botched but beautiful blaze of glory — catastrophic but exhilarating. Example: Jamaican bobsled team.

Common failure

Everyday instances of screwing up that are not too difficult to recover from. The apology was invented for this category. Examples: oversleeping and missing a meeting at work; forgetting to pick up your kids from school; overcooking the tuna.

Version failure

Small failures that lead to incremental but meaningful improvements over time. Examples: Linux operating system; evolution.

Predicted failure

Failure as an essential part of a process that allows you to see what it is you really need to do more clearly because of the shortcomings. Example: the prototype — only by creating imperfect early versions of it can you learn what's necessary to refine it.

With this extended vocabulary, we may now be able to recognize that there are valuable kinds of failure that are essential to innovation processes (version and predicted), while acknowledging that there are other types of failures that do little good. The old adage is correct: We do learn from failure. And there's no question that out of failure — even abject failure — we emerge transformed in ways that may ultimately be beneficial. But that does not mean that all failures deserve a trophy.

Click here for Method's take on failure and its role in innovation.

[Top image by Shandi-Lee]