Life, just like design or any creative endeavour, is a process of trial and error. We fall once and then we fall again — in the meantime we learn how to walk. Make no mistake: we learn and progress with our failures, and that is usually well accepted when we are talking about kids and life in general. It's quite a different story when failure happens in a business environment, because mistakes can cost money and we are wired to measure success.
But if we are afraid to fail, how can we innovate, be creative, step out of our comfort zone? We can't. It's that simple.
Does that mean that we should promote failure, per se, as a practice? Certainly not. But we shouldn't be quick to judge and condemn it neither. Take children for example: they are creative by nature. They are not afraid to experiment, touch, paint, build and just have fun. That's how they learn and grow. And they manage that because they simply don't understand failure as a negative thing: if something doesn't work, they try again and again until they are happy with the result. And even when it works, they try another approach. But as school and society claim their ground, children start to lose the capacity to experiment freely, concentrating in doing just the "right thing". Sir Ken Robinson has some brilliant interventions on this subject, showing how our western school systems cripple creativity and lateral thinking.
Mistakes are the portals of discovery
Those eloquent and poetic words are not mine. They belong to James Joyce and express why embracing failure is an integral part of innovation. The Eames designed and build hundreds of chairs until arriving at the iconic molded plastic chairs for Herman Miller. It took months of trials, refinements, experiments and lots of mistakes. They wanted to make a chair that used new materials and represented a modern american style. The result is a innovative design that, still today, stands out, that introduced new manufacturing techniques and ways to mold plastic.
Now, in a perfect world, we would have all the time and resources to experiment, design, build, iterate and refine, until the finished product was perfect. But it doesn't work that way. We deal with constraints… lot's of them. And with constraints, failure is less tolerable. Given that fearing failure stifles creativity and innovation, what can we do to overcome that?
Fail often and fail early
If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.— Thomas Edison
Business tends to see mistakes as costs. Actually, the costs are higher when the mistakes are only found after the product or service is launch and money and time is spent. That's the real failure.
The solution: incorporate failure as part of your process and establish the opportunity to do it early. It's in the beginning, when most is unknown and your are finding your way, that exploration is crucial. Research and analysis have a role, but data will only take so far. There's no point in creating a fantastic strategy, a great concept and don't validate it immediately. Sometimes it just takes a simple elevator pitch exercise to establish if the concept makes sense. Others, a quick sketch will do the trick. Early mistakes don't cost much and the findings will surely help you refine or uncover alternatives.
In another article, I've written about the iterative nature of design and it's fundamental ingredients: curiosity, failure and tenacity. They are all connected and part of the same. Every designer knows that he is going to fail — sometimes miserably, and that's ok. That's how we learn what works, how to do it better and, more important, that's how we gather the crucial information or knowledge to innovate and deliver a great product. But what every designer also knows, is to use a set of tools, techniques and iterative — you can call it agile — processes to mitigate the impact of his mistakes and concentrate most of them in the beginning of the creative process, when there is still time and budget to change and refine. In the words of Scott Adams: "Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep".
And what about those tools, techniques and processes? They will be the topic of a future article. Stay tuned.