frog design: FailForward – Why Successful Innovators Have to Learn How to Fail

frog design: FailForward – Why Successful Innovators Have to Learn How to Fail

Charles Kettering, Board Member of GM (1920-1947) famously noted that when it comes to innovation: “You don't know when you are going to get the thing, whether it’s going to work or not and whether it’s going to have any value whatsoever."

  • 1 december 2010

FailForward- Why Successful Innovators Have to Learn How to Fail

It is common knowledge that most new products and services fail when brought to market. Charles Kettering, Board Member of GM (1920-1947) famously noted that when it comes to innovation: “You don’t know when you are going to get the thing, whether it’s going to work or not and whether it’s going to have any value whatsoever.” And even as things may have improved a bit since Kettering’s time, thanks to today’s attention to innovation processes and user-centered development practices, there’s still uncertainty that haunts all innovation attempts.

This high fail rate of new products and services stands in interesting contradiction to the flood of “Best Case” studies you will experience if you happen to attend a lot of business and innovation conferences. Best Case studies are certainly great stories and we all love to tell them, but I’d argue that in real life failures give you much more of a learning experience and motivation for improvement then success would ever do – think about the road to excellence if you do sports, think about how your kids grow up etc. And certainly this is also the case when it comes to business. So shouldn’t we hear much more fail stories and learn from them?

With that idea in mind, I hosted a “Fail Camp” on stage of this year’s trendforum, a high-level trend and innovation conference held each year in Germany. I was joined on stage by Thomas Wenzel-Haberstock from IBM and Peter Borchers from Deutsche Telekom, both innovation leaders within their companies. Together we tried to discuss how failing relates to innovation, share insider-experiences with the audience about failed innovation projects and the best practices (haha) companies can harvest from failure and succeed from learning.

Naturally, the faster you fail, the faster you learn and the faster you will succeed; so the often heard “fail fast and early” mantra was our starting point. And it’s interesting how much you can translate this process into “design-as-a-process” (others like to call it “design thinking”); the agile development process of designers with highly iterative work cycles, rapid protoyping and a constant conceptualization of ideas with a user-centered perspective seems to provide a perfect blueprint to learn from failures at an early stage and push your innovation project forward to success.

Translating this into corporate practice we identified four main challenges during our Fail Camp to successfully “fail forward”:

  • An innovation / corporate culture driven by a mindset that thinking outside the box, pushing beyond the boundaries and not being afraid to fail won’t be penalized, and even more understands failure as an investment. Obviously this is a goal hard to achieve, especially in big corporations with a competitive environment in the innovation pipeline; when multiple projects and teams compete for limited funding, failure is often understood as a career killer (on individual level) and thus no option. So no wonder the business world is rife with examples of firms that keep investing more resources and staff in failing projects in the hopes of a miraculous recovery or simply to avoid the public embarrassment of failure.
  • However, admitting failure and moving on is a key lesson in managing innovation and proof of leadership excellence that is needed to fail forward. Companies like Google demonstrate that in public (just think about the hype around Google Wave and the way this project – and not the team behind – was then terminated when it became clear it didn’t get momentum), and their success speaks for itself.
  • Failing forward in large organizations also requires a modular structure to isolate the impact of a failure to a circumscribed part of the organization. Innovation Labs seem to be a solution often used here, however, such labs also shouldn’t be too “safe places” where you can’t fail, but you can’t succeed either (because your work simply doesn’t matter to the core business or you’ll never have the possibility to drive innovation to market). Projects with a high risk of failure and a lot to win or lose should be firewalled and include the possibility for mutation, e.g. milestones that are not ‘pass/fail’ but rather continue-straight / change-direction / stop.
  • Last but certainly not least, success depends on people, and failing forward requires people with the right mindset and courage to stick with the vision when necessary or humility to change when needed. I think it’s worth an extra discussion whether our education systems really enable us to this kind of leadership. It sometimes seems to me that when we leave school or university, failure is already not an option anymore, and risk-taking is breeded out of many job starters.

So will we see the Best Case study disappear at tomorrow’s innovation conferences and make room for discussions on failure? Probably not. The beauty of a well-executed best case study will always keep its charme and attract people. Still, based on the positive feedback we got after our Fail Camp session, there is definitely a lot of interest in learning from failure. I think conference organizers should embrace that opportunity as it truly creates value. Didn’t Samuel Beckett already point it out in the end in his 1983 piece ‘Worstward Ho?’: ”Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

By Till Grusche

Reprinted with kind permission from design mind, a publication of global innovation firm frog design.


Brand Engagement At The Gates Of The World's Largest Open-Air Gallery

Asia Yesterday

Safe Drivers Rewarded In Japan With Free Coffee

Driving Barista is a new app that encourages Japanese motorists to put their phones down as they drive

Arts & Culture Yesterday

Michael Kors Has Designed Their Own Instant Camera

In a partnership with Fuji, the limited edition Instax Mini 70 comes in an exclusive metallic gold color


Get PSFK's Related Report: Future of Automotive

See All
Health Yesterday

Manage Your Emotional Health Through Your Phone

Pharmaceutical company Pfizer has created a new iOS app meant to help patients track mental progress and set goals

Food Yesterday

Delete Food Pics Off Of Instagram To Feed The Hungry

Land O'Lakes and Feeding America are donating meals for every picture of a meal taken off of the social platform

Related Expert

Winka Dubbeldam

Architectural Design

Design & Architecture Yesterday

This Shape-Shifting Pod Could Be The Future Of The Cubicle

MIT and Google have designed a new form of work enclosure meant to offer privacy in open-office layouts

Advertising Yesterday

Billboard Spies On People As They Walk By

To promote the movie "Snowden," the advertisement broadcasts information on passersby without their knowledge

Fashion Yesterday

Anti-Pollution Scarf Helps Cyclists Ride Through Cities

An innovative system filters pollutants and its accompanying app monitors quality of the air


Future Of Automotive
Scenarios Driving The Digital Transformation Of An Industry

PSFK Op-Ed Yesterday

Energy Expert: How American Consumers Are Taking Control Of Their Power Use

Jennifer Tuohy, green tech expert at The Home Depot, discusses green home technologies and developments for renewable technologies in US homes

PSFK Labs Yesterday

New Mentorship Ecosystems Benefit All Levels Of An Organization

PSFK’s Future of Work report explores how technology is being leveraged to support cross-team communication

Automotive Yesterday

Volvo’s Self-Driving Trucks Will Soon Be Put To Work In An Underground Mine

The fully-automated vehicles are part of a development project to help improve safety for workers

Work Yesterday

Editorial Roundtable: How Will Companies Staff The Workplace Of The Future?

Managed By Q, Soma, Workbar, Primary, AltSchool and thinkPARALLAX examine the ways that a people-first workplace might disrupt the job hiring process

Arts & Culture Yesterday

Mischievous Drone Will Drop Paint-Filled Balloons On Targets Of Your Choosing

A German photography team developed the flying device to accurately deliver a payload wherever needed

Retail Yesterday

Snapchat Reveals A Striking Pair Of Video-Recording Sunglasses

Spectacles make memories from your perspective and transfer them to the app


Future Of Work
Cultivating The Next Generation Of Leaders

Financial Services Yesterday

This Peer-To-Peer Insurance Company Is Powered By Bots

Lemonade is a new product designed to lighten the paperwork and provide instant, helpful service when needed

Design Yesterday

Concept Artists And Scientists Form Partnership To Visualize The Future

The collaboration hopes to liberate ideas and innovations trapped in notebooks

Automotive Yesterday

Uber Could Be Bringing Vertical Takeoff Transport To Your City

The ridesharing app is looking into the development of nimble aircraft for urban environments

No search results found.