There’s a time in the evolution of everything that works when it didn’t. However, the creator behind each and every thing persevered. Perhaps the best example of this is Thomas Edison on his journey to creating the light bulb, whose response to a reporter was, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” If he had given up on attempt 9,000, let alone 100, the 20th Century might have looked a lot different.
But all too often people are not allowed to fail. The emphasis is on being right, being correct, rather than trying something different. The problem with this is that it leads to sameness, to a lack of creativity and invention. As Ken Robinson says – in one of the most watched TED talks of all time – “if you’re not prepared to be wrong you’ll never come up with anything creative”.
It seems then the role of failure has been misrepresented. In modern society failure is seen as the end result. You failed and therefore you should stop. Not enough is failure seen as a stage to be progressed passed until you finally accomplish your aim. Success is considered a linear progress, from start to finish, with no deviations in between. Whereas it is rarely that simple. Because it is only by failing that – like Edison – we learn which is the correct path to follow.
But this path isn’t just procedural, it’s psychological. As you grow and learn your brain develops different schemas and models for the world. Shorthand heuristics on how to understand your environment. Winning and being right reinforces these schemas, cementing them in our brain. This can be good, but it can also blindside us from creativity, shackling us to a rigid viewpoint rather than being flexible to new information and responses.
Losing, being wrong, on the other hand literally expands the brain. As deftly explained in Joh Lehrer’s book, How We Decide, “unless you experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong, your brain will never revise its models.” So, in fact, there is a real benefit to losing – not all the time, you understand – but enough to keep you on your toes, and being open to new ideas and aware of the competition. It’s the reason why the British Olympic rowing coach – the architect behind countless Golds – Jurgen Grobler, seeks out a loss before big competitions like the Olympics. Because he knows it will hit the team hard. Shake them out of any ruts they’re in, and get them in the right focus for the big event.
There are a number of companies now that are embracing failure as a stage on the journey to success. Google is probably the most well-known, famously allowing their employees to spend 20% of their time on non-work ideas. They know full well that a lot of these won’t go anywhere – but some of them will. That’s where Google News, Gmail and AdSense all came from. In fact, it’s to the point that Google has embraced this culture that they have created Area 120, a department dedicated to innovation.
But all of this starts from embracing a culture of celebrating failure. Not in and off itself, but as a sign that you’re working on something new, something different, that may change things for the better. To put it another way – if you don’t make mistakes, you’re not working on hard enough problems. And that’s a big mistake.
That’s why at Kadence we’ve introduced an Office Mantra. Four key promises that the office will embody to make the company stronger. And one of them is Safety. Not health and safety – that’s a given – but psychological safety. We want you to fail, and we will support you in a safe environment when you do, because that is the only way progress is made.
This Mantra, this way of working, is on our office wall, and is in all of our training and onboarding documents, because we want people to feel that they can reach for new ideas and goals. It is only through everyone feeling safe to fail and try again that we will adapt, change and grow. In the words of Edward de Bono, “it is better to have enough ideas for some of them to be wrong than to always be right by having no ideas at all.”