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]

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  • david roy

    You forgot two important failure levels:
    1. At the top end of the scale is "Catastrophic Failure". This is similar to "Abject Failure", but on a scale so vast as to encompass the lives and livelihoods of generations to come. The triple meltdown at Fukushima Dai-1 plant is the current best example.  Here in Japan, we just assume that we're all living in a contaminated wasteland.   I'm sure the failure to plan for asteroid strike, total bee die-off, climate change will fit into this category. 2. "Epic Fail" at the lower end of the spectrum.  This is a failure that brings joy to all and perhaps even fame and stardom for the fail succeeder. Celebrity antics are perfect examples as are Youtube videos of people falling down, getting injured, running over cats, etc.

  • Margaret Campbell

    hmmmm... while starting to feel better about my failures as I started trying to categorize them using your breakdowns, I realized that there are different "colors" of failure also - for example, emotional, intellectual, physical, psychic, and who knows what other kinds of failure. I know that failure in emotional and physical realms is not such a big deal to me...but intellectual failure is a crisis that I do not recover from easily. 

  • Wilson

    Since all failure is unintentional, the recommended takeaways from this article are a bit unclear.  Is the intent to temper the front end of the process (how hesitant should we be based on our expected types of failure) or the back end (some types of failures are always good or bad and should be rewarded or punished)?  If the later, which types are which?  Should the iPhone4 team be fired?  The BP team?  The bobsled team? 

  • jay Young

    Jamer I really enjoyed this article and your framework for dealing with and understanding failure. One of the critical elements that should be added is the element of time. Time plays a critical role in the failure scenarios as it impacts recovery, relationships, and strategy in a profound way. I'd like to see that factored into the analysis as well. Nevertheless, I agree that trophies for last place, awards for just coming to work and empty conversations are doing more harm than good. @thoughtmaster,

  • Susa Hart

    Sometimes people take failure too lightly and rush to "fail quickly".

    Yes, you can learn when you put something out and see how people respond to it, but that doesn't mean you put out something that's obviously flawed or too incomplete to be useful. You still have to pay attention to good design heuristics and the holistic experience; otherwise you only failed quickly, learned the obvious, and need to try again.

  • Jason Lindstrom

    I was just reading the book "Think and Grow Rich" which embraces the idea of failure as a catalyst for change. You identified abject failure as being the most severe but I was thinking that some of the greatest changes and learning come results from these events. For instance, World War I & II resulted in some of the greatest gains in medical and technological advancements. The United Nations is also a by product of these events. Just my 2 cents.

  • Ian Jindal

    A refreshing and useful move to provide a 'spectrum' of failure types. 

    It would also be useful to consider the extent to which failure was 'reasonably forseeable'. Similar to the distinctions between manslaughter and murder, the determination hinges upon questions of negligence, intent and how reasonably the results of one's actions can be foreseen to lead to another's death...

    This assessment mirrors the one that managers need to take when assessing a team's performance. One considers whether the actions were calculated test-and-learn, risk-limited prototyping, "good" mistakes based on interesting thinking where 'stuff happened' or irresponsible errors by people who are incapable of learning from experience!

    I agree with Daniel's point about training and see it as an important aspect of a 'performance language' within businesses: for staff members to learn to balance research with insight, testing and risk mitigation, incremental improvement with bold moves - and for managers to provide leadership, context and support for this to happen, learning from their activity.

  • Daniel Ostrower

    I'm really glad to see someone point out the flip-side of the failure-philia.  I agree that having the language to categorize failures is critically important.  Also overlooked is the fact that a special set of skills (both emotional and intellectual) is required to diagnose and learn from failure.  Not everyone can do it, and even those that can will have more difficulty in certain situations than others.  Along with the promotion of failure as a tool for learning, should be a recognition and teaching of the skills required to use the tool.