Designers Must Learn to Embrace Failure

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In our experience, one of the scariest snakes in the room is the fear of failure, which manifests itself in many ways like fear of being judged, fear of getting started, fear of the unknown. And while much has been said about fear of failure, it still is the single biggest obstacle people face to creative success.

The Failure Paradox
A widely held myth suggests that creative geniuses rarely fail. Yet according to University of California, Davis Professor Dean Keith Simonton, actually the opposite is true: creative geniuses, from artists like Mozart to scientists like Darwin, are quite prolific when it comes to failure—they just don’t let that stop them. His research has found that creative people simply do more experiments. Their ultimate “strokes of genius” don’t come about because they succeed more often than other people—they just do more, period. They take more shots at the goal. That is the surprising, compelling mathematics of innovation: if you want more success, you have to be prepared to shrug off more failure.

Take Thomas Edison, for example.

Edison, one of the most famous and prolific inventors in history, had failure baked into his creative process. He understood that an experiment ending in failure is not a failed experiment—as long as constructive learning is gained. He invented the incandescent light bulb, but only after the lessons of a thousand unsuccessful attempts. Edison maintained that the “real measure of success is the number of experiments that can be crowded into twenty-four hours.”

In fact, early failure can be crucial to success in innovation. Because the faster you find weaknesses during an innovation cycle, the faster you can improve what needs fixing. We grew up in Ohio, home of aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright. The Wright Brothers are best remembered for what is sometimes called the “first flight” in December of 1903 at Kitty Hawk. But that accomplishment overlooks the hundreds of experiments and failed flight trials in the years that led up to that first successful flight. In fact, some reports suggest that the Wright brothers picked Kitty Hawk in part because the remote Outer Banks location would draw less media attention during their experiments.

Edison and the Wright brothers may seem like ancient history, but the tradition of learning from enlightened trial and error is still very much alive today. When Steelcase decided to reinvent the traditional classroom chair—eclipsing that uncomfortable wooden version
that has the writing surface rigidly attached to the chair arm—they worked with our design team to build over 200 prototypes of all shapes and sizes. Early on, they experimented with small paper-and-scotch-tape models. Later in the project, they constructed plywood components, attaching them to pieces of existing chairs. They went to local colleges, asking students and professors to interact with these “experience models” and give feedback. They carved shapes out of foam and fabricated parts on 3D printers to get a sense of shape and size. They prototyped mechanisms in steel. And as release-to-manufacturing approached, they built sophisticated full-size models that looked exactly like the real thing. All that relentless experimentation—and the associated learning—paid off. The Node chair replaced the rigidity of its predecessors with a comfortable swivel seat, an adjustable work surface, a tripod base to hold backpacks—and the whole thing is set on casters. The result is a mobile, flexible 21st-century classroom chair that quickly transitions from lecture- based seating to group activities, fitting with today’s varied teaching styles. Launched in 2010, Node chairs are already in use at 800 schools and universities around the world.

Neither Edison, nor the Wright brothers, nor modern-day innovators like the design team on the Node chair were defensive or embarrassed about their method of trial and error. Ask any seasoned innovator, and they will likely have an impressive collection of “war stories” about failures on their path toward success.

Designing for Courage
Albert Bandura used the process of guided mastery—a series of small successes—to help people gain courage and overcome deep-seated phobias. What would have been nearly impossible to accomplish in one giant leap became manageable in small steps, with the guidance of someone knowledgeable in the field. In a similar way, we use a step-by-step progression to help people discover and experience the tools and methodologies of design thinking, gradually increasing the level of challenge to help individuals transcend the fear of failure that blocks their best ideas. These small successes are intrinsically rewarding, and help people to go on to the next level.

In our classes or workshops, we first ask people to work through quick design challenges, whether it’s to redesign the gift-giving experience or to re-think their daily commute. We may jump in with some help or a small nudge, but mostly we let them figure out solutions themselves. Building confidence through experience encourages more creative action in the future, which further bolsters confidence. For this reason, we frequently ask students and team members to complete multiple quick design projects, rather than one big project, to maximize the number of learning cycles.

At the, one of the goals of getting people to work together on a project is to help them practice new skills and challenge themselves—and most likely experience failure as a result. We believe the lessons learned from failures may make us smarter—even stronger. But that doesn’t make failure any more fun. So most of us naturally try to avoid failure at all costs. Failure is hard, even painful. As Stanford professor Bob Sutton and IDEO Partner Diego Rodriguez often say at the, “Failure sucks, but instructs.”

The inescapable link between failure and innovation is a lesson you can only learn through doing. We give students a chance to fail as soon as possible, in order to maximize the learning time that follows. Instead of long lectures followed by exercises, most of our classes at the give students a little instruction up-front, and then get them working on a project or a challenge. We follow up in debriefs to reflect on what succeeded—and what can be learned from things that didn’t work.

“Many classes demand that student teams keep pushing the limits of possibility until they face-plant,” says IDEO partner and consulting associate professor Chris Flink. “The personal resilience, courage, and humility born of a healthy failure form a priceless piece of their education and growth.”

Facing failure, in order to wipe away the fear, was something understood intuitively by our friend John “Cass” Cassidy, lifelong innovator and creator of Klutz Press. In his book, Juggling for the Complete Klutz, Cass didn’t start us out juggling two balls, or even one. He began with something more basic: “The Drop.” Step one is simply to throw all three balls in the air and let them drop. Then repeat. In learning to juggle, the angst comes from failure— from having the ball fall to the floor. So with step one, Cass aims to numb aspiring jugglers to that. Having the ball fall to the floor becomes more normal than the ball not falling to the floor. After addressing our fear of failure, juggling becomes a lot easier. The two of us were skeptical at first, but with the help of his simple approach, we really did learn to juggle.

Fear of failure holds us back from learning all sorts of new skills, from taking on risks, and tackling new challenges. Creative confidence asks that we overcome that fear. You know you are going to drop the ball, make mistakes, and go in a wrong direction or two. But you come to accept that it’s part of learning. And in doing so, you are able to remain confident that you are moving forward, despite the setbacks.

Overcoming Fears of Customer Interviews
We know from experience that people often have a fear of venturing out into the turf of customers and users in attempts to gain empathy with them. At the, lecturer Caroline O’Connor and managing director Sarah Stein Greenberg have helped many students move past that fear, one step at a time. Here are a few ways they suggest to gain empathy, adapted for use in a business context. The techniques on the list start out easy, and become increasingly challenging.

1. Be a “fly on the wall” in an online forum. Pay attention as potential customers share feedback, air their grievances, and ask questions. You’re not looking for evaluations of features or cost; you’re searching for pain points and latent needs among the people on the forum.

2. Try your own customer service. Go through the experience of calling your customer service number pretending to be a customer. Notice how your problem is handled, and how you feel along the way. Try mapping out the individual steps in the process and then graph the ups and downs of your mood or satisfaction.

3. Talk with unexpected experts. What does the receptionist have to say about your firm’s customer experience? If you’re in health care, talk to a medical assistant, rather than a doctor. If you make a physical product, ask a repair person to tell you about what goes wrong with it.

4. Play detective in pursuit of insight. Take some reading material and a pair of headphones to a retail space or an industry conference (or, if your customers are internal, an area people tend to gather). Observe people’s behavior, and try to figure out what is going on. How are they interacting with your product or service? What can you glean from their body language that indicates their level of engagement, or interest?

5. Casually interview some customers. Think of a few open-ended questions about your product or service. Go to a place where your customers spend time, and find someone you are comfortable approaching. Tell them you’d like to ask a few questions. If the person refuses, no problem, just try someone else. Eventually you’ll find someone who’s willing—even dying—to talk to you. Press for more detail with every question. Ask “Why?” and “Can you tell me more about that?”—even if you think you already know the answer. Sometimes their responses will surprise you, and point you toward new opportunities.

creative confidence jacket

Reprinted from the book Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential within Us All by Tom Kelley & David Kelley. Copyright (c) 2013 by David Kelley and Tom Kelley. Published by Crown Business, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company.