Failure and Innovation

The theme of ‘Failure’ was bravely taken up by Gemma Bull of Save the Children, in the 2nd of 3 Breakfast discussions being run by The Social Innovation Partnership, in partnership with Hub Westminster and °directional thinking.

Building on the blog-post she had written in advance, Gemma made the case for a new and open approach to ‘failure’ within social innovation.

The context for the discussion was the tendency in the charity sector to avoid talking about failure. Perhaps it’s the fragility of the public sector funding environment or the fear of Daily Mail headlines – but there’s no doubting the tendency to avoid revisiting the details of publicly-funded projects which go wrong. Whereas for venture capitalists and investors in the private sector, ‘failure’ is an important and public part of the investment culture – a process from which an entrepreneur can learn, moving on to build a successful business – for innovators in the public and voluntary sectors, it’s a topic to be avoided. Too often, failure of a project results in the demonisation of everything and everyone involved in that project, to the detriment of shared learning, and an undermining of any concept of review or evaluation.

Evaluating Failure

Meaningful evaluation of any project needs to have ‘failure’ as part of its lexicon and it is in the interest of any business or organisation genuinely interested in succeeding that it can recognise and learn from projects or investments that fail. As Gemma puts it, success and failure are two sides of the same coin – recognising one helps reach towards the other. Successful organisations spot failure, seek to understand how it has happened, and learn lessons to apply in the next phase of development.

Within the social innovation sector, as Stephen Bediako advised, it’s really important to understand at what stage of the process ‘failure’ has taken place. Was it part of the project design? Was it in the implementation? Or, more pertinently for evaluators, is it in the process of measuring that the wrong metrics are being applied? A project might be deemed to have ‘failed’ for any one of those reasons, and it’s essential that there are systems in place to properly diagnose the problem, and to take appropriate steps to address the identified ‘failure’.

Failing or Improving?

Despite this apparent embrace of the concept of ‘failure’, there’s a nagging doubt however that a focus on ‘failure’ might simply exacerbate an existing culture of risk-aversion. Failure, like Success, implies certainty – knowing what’s wrong and knowing what’s right. What’s interesting about the example of James Dyson – allegedly developing 5,127 prototypes before being happy with his vacuum device – is that the approach is not one of ‘This one’s right, the rest were all wrong’, but is an approach which is constantly asking the question “can we do better?”*

Organisations and businesses which place an emphasis on success or failure appear to miss this important nuance. Engineers Without Borders Canada, for example, employs a ‘Venture Leader’ for ‘Admitting Failure’, and has published five ‘Failure Reports’. Meanwhile, Ashley Good, who learnt all about failure from EWBC, has since set up her own business ‘Fail Forward‘ which provides advice and runs an Awards programme – all of which focus on Failure.

This over-zealous naming-and-celebrating of failure might seem innovative but to what extent does it really contribute to an innovation culture?

Acknowledging and celebrating ‘failure’ in this way risks privileging the notion of being wrong and being right. Innovation isn’t about getting things right or getting things wrong – like design-prototyping, it’s about constantly testing and improving. Even when you reach the point that the product or service which has been designed is ready for mass-market consumption, there’s still a desire and a commitment to keep improving. Innovators like Dyson and Ive don’t give up and go home the moment their product generates an ROI. They keep going back to develop and improve the earlier version.

Stimulating Social Innovation

The same should apply in social innovation. We work in an incredibly dynamic social and economic environment, where the needs and demands of our customers are constantly evolving. There is unlikely to be a ‘right’ product or service out there which suits everyone all the time. There may be fantastic interventions and ones which are poorly designed or poorly delivered. But our job shouldn’t be to get too hung up on any of these, so much as to keep improving.

The TSIP Breakfast session concluded that we need to instil that culture of continuous improvement throughout an organisation. Too often, that commitment to learning and innovation is restricted to the ‘innovation’ department, or to the ‘sandpit’ session – with everyone reverting to the certainty of “Success!” or (but let’s not talk about it) “Failure” throughout the organisation for the rest of the time.

Successful organisations and businesses need to operate (perhaps like Dyson, perhaps like Apple) within a framework of learning and improving: a more emergent culture, which spots opportunities for growth, investment and scaling up; which learns from and improves on things which appear to go wrong; and which encourages and supports people to develop the habits and skills which support continuous improvement.


*The creative process of constant re-invention and improvement is referred to as the 3rd Creative Myth in this useful post by Charles Andrew.

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