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On Error

Re-posting of a piece I wrote for Idea Couture’s blog, Noodleplay.

The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan believed every unsuccessful act to be successful as discourse. Mistakes are reference points. They re-calibrate our assumptions and reorient our course of action.  The culture that doesn’t identify and contemplate its mistakes is condemned to repeat them.

Applied Design Thinking practices help manage risks and avoid critical failures.  But it’s not just about mitigating mistakes; it’s about managing and making the most out of them.  Instead of ‘fail early and fail often,’ why not fail strategically?

Strategic failure can be designed into an organization’s innovation apparatus. The U.S. DoD’s technology-unit DARPA for example accepts a 90% failure rate against its innovation investments, but the 10% of successful projects have proved to be world-changing technologies, in line with the agency’s mandate of staying on the leading edge globally. Error, when calculated and effectively analyzed—accelerates progress. It’s the rationale for rapid prototyping. Increase your odds with every try, while you learn what doesn’t work, and arrive at surprising outcomes. Says James Dyson of the eponymous appliance manufacturer and bagless vacuum fame: “It’s accident. Serendipity—but the serendipity that occurs through never giving up and through just going on and on and on, testing, searching new avenues—and going up many, many blind avenues!” Error in this case, isn’t failing (an end result); it’s part of the process of design-doing.

Part of organizing for innovation involves giving space for researchers and creatives to break frame—to diverge from predetermined strategies and follow the trajectory of their serendipitous ideas. Google famously provides its employees with Innovation Time-Off(ITO), which allows one day a week to explore whatever projects inspire their attention. The employee-driven apparatus accords the space to create but also to fail without too much fear or consequence. In it self, letting-people-do-whatever-they-want is not sound innovation strategy. There’s no mechanism to mitigate risk and the efforts lack determination. In spite of that, ITO has generated popular applications including Gmail, AdSense and Google News. When ITO initiatives do go unfavorably, Google capitalizes in retrospect—analyzing and harvesting from failed pursuits. Remember Wave—it was supposed to replace email? Well, if you can’t make a mistake you can’t make anything. When Google Wave failed to accumulate users, its successful collaboration and communication features were applied to Gmail and Google Docs. What failed as a disruptive innovation succeeded by providing iterative improvements to existing products.

Because error really is part of innovation, it’s essential that organizations design a system to harvest from the messy and serendipitous process. Fail hard, fail fast, fail cheap and—fail strategically, in such a way that salient knowledge can be taken away.  If your team really is inventive, there should be some value in what they make—even when it seems to fall flat. Harvesting from failure involves applying purpose to newness. Leveraging assets from error demands a system and culture where employees are unafraid to fail, but more importantly, comfortable reporting on failure.

Avoid making the same mistakes, accelerate progress, and follow the interesting surprises. As the Irish novelist and poet James Joyce put it: “A man of genius makes no mistakes; his errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.” Make your mistakes with purpose.