What Does Failure Look Like?

As we try to understand what the road to innovation looks like we hear a lot about failure as an antecedent to innovative success. How great innovators like Thomas Edison, Leonardo Da Vinci, Steve Jobs…suffered failures before their success.

For those that aspire to innovate, what is the practical benefit of knowing that innovators have left failure in their wake? 

You can't just blindly add 'Failure’ to your performance metrics or something to be tracked at weekly status meetings : “How many times have you failed this week, Bob?“ “Every day.” “Excellent job!”. All this talk of failure has manifested in celebrations of failure by those that want to be seen as following the mantra of innovation.

So, practically speaking, what does ‘failure’ look like?

In most cases innovators don't have the word failure in their vocabulary. When we read that innovators fail, what it really means is that they persevere. The term 'fail' is only applied by those on the outside. 

As a society we score, measure and judge. We use scores to categorize both ourselves and others into buckets. Professional buckets, societal buckets, brain buckets. We're sense making machines so we like to know where everyone fits. 

Scoring and comparing allow us to systemize our need to understand how we're doing. But it can also cause self-defeating behaviour. The student that got 4 out of 20 on the math test will declare: “I’m not mathy”. No you just didn’t study hard enough. 

There’s no doubt that every person has a unique set of natural talents. For any given task a person’s genetic make-up will be a determinant in how fast they make the trip from natural talent to aspiration. While it may be true that the maths student studied just as much as her best friend who scored 15/20, the fact still remains that she simply didn’t study hard enough. Her journey was longer. She is unique. She had a different starting point.

We only 'fail' relative to real or implied scoring systems. We use these systems to establish our own personal benchmark for failure. We get to know our strengths and weakness and we treat our weaknesses as a fixed state. Like a permanent condition. 

This self-knowledge prevents us from persevering. It's not fair that we have to try harder so why try at all? Once we get a signal that we’re not “naturally” good at something we see a potential embarrassment over the horizon and we retreat. 

Overcoming obstacles is important because when individuals combine their natural talents with the grit to battle through what they're "not good at" they open up a new and unique world of possibilities. They see new possibilities. They innovate. 

The best example of perseverance I know is under my own roof. 

My 16 year-old son is severely dyslexic and dyspraxic. His entire world is backwards - from the words on a page to the shoes on his feet. He also has limited peripheral vision therefore his spatial awareness is severely compromised. 

Try navigating in a foreign country where you don’t know the language, fixing your hair while looking into a video camera and walking down stairs blind-folded and you can just start to get the idea. 

My son has never failed in his life. 

At the age of seven he wanted to play ice hockey like his siblings did. The other children on the ice skated circles around him. He fell down, he got up. He fell down, he got up. He acquired a new set of bruises at the end of each game. He loved it. When he was eventually able to move without falling, he exuded as much pride as if he had scored the game winning goal.

At eleven, he ran a cross-country race at school. He came last out of 26 kids. He came second last in the second year. His reaction to coming second last was euphoric: “Mom, I didn’t come last - maybe I’ll be in the top 20 next year.”  

He insisted that he wanted to learn to swim. Think about the full body coordination required for that…We hired him a private coach. For the first three months he wouldn’t let go of her. Four years later he swims front crawl, arms stroking, legs kicking and breathing every second stroke. It took him four years of building on very small wins to achieve that. How many people would dig in if they were told it would take them four years to swim? But, he didn't ask. He just kept building on success.

The gap between his natural abilities and his aspirations are in some cases quite large. So he has to try harder. 

He’s never failed. He’s only persevered. 

The key is that his sense of personal accomplishment has never been linked to the accomplishments of others. He's honestly oblivious to the rate that others master something relative to his own ability to. If he can do one thing a bit better, he hasn’t failed. He’s progressing. He’s learning. 

Innovators find the motivation to improve from within. They have an aspiration and they work as hard as they need to see it through. The only reason they get to call themselves innovators is because they persevered. They powered through and hit the mark - when others were too quick to back off. 

That’s the big difference between idea generators and innovators. Innovators persevere and idea generators talk. That's the difference between first to market and best in market. Best in market persevere.

And it only requires a shift in mindset. We were raised in an industrialized way that measured our progress against our peers because that’s what allowed the systems to work. If we say to hell with antiquated measurement systems not only will you never ‘fail’, but you’ll look within yourself to make a unique mark in your lifetime. 

Leaders that do that drive innovation in the marketplace. And they surround themselves with people that do the same. They refuse to give up.

Behind every David and Goliath story is a tale of perseverance.

Let’s stop talking about failure - and, perhaps one day we can stop talking about the same handful of innovators. 

If you want to innovate don’t encourage people to fail. Create a culture that dreams big and takes risks. And reward those that persevere.