February 12, 2007

How to benefit from failure, Part One

In all the organisations with whom I have worked and currently work I've never been sure what the attitude to failure is. This isn't really a revelation, since rejoicing in failure is not something most groups or individuals are particularly good, or that keen, at doing. But three times this past week I've been reminded how vital failure is to becoming successful in our ventures.


How to Benefit From Failure No. 1: David Law, Speck Design
I went to hear David at the superb Edinburgh-Stanford link Entrepreneurship Club Silicon Valley series (you can download his presentation from the site). He was talking about Business Design and the role creativity has in that process of building something. David is a Glasgow Uni educated, self-proclaimed "unlikely" entrepreneur of Speck Design now hailing from Palo Alto, who believes that creativity is what makes the only competitive advantage for many industries and, importantly, countries. This grand statement, though, was proceeded by a host of failures (about 20 minutes' worth).

First failure: cool stuff isn't easy to come up with all the time

First of all he went after Patent Sales, where you come up with an idea, slap a patent on it and hope someone else will buy your great idea for loads of mullah.

But when was the last time you said "Wow. That's cool"? Coming up with cool stuff for a living is not easy.

David worked at first on the "work an hour, earn a dollar" basis, quickly moving on to only speculative work, using what the company had in terms of creativity to create what they believed would maybe sell. They were "all over the map" - producing everything that could possibly hit a niche which was as yet untapped. They thought they would sell tonnes of patents, but realised this wouldn't work, either - they've only sold one patent, in 2002. They developed real estate radio, taking videos down ski slopes, vents that drew the heat out the top of LCD screens. They were all over the place.

Second failure: Be creative but link it to reality

The lesson from the patent stuff was that the closer you are to reality the easier it is to sell. Unfinshed products or notions are near impossible to sell.

"Made", his spin-out company, found success by making something quickly which related to a real product, the iPod. Made made that first iPod holder that wraps around your arm, but succeeding only when the iPod was finally released - in 2001 several investors told them that they were "not sure the Apple thing is going anywhere".

Third failure: You can't have it all

Triangleofcreativity There's a visual you can pull up when you've got an idea you want to develop, either in the classroom, in the education office or in the board room. Innovation, Speed and Cost are three factors within which you can lie. But you can only be in one spot, and that's where you'll be. You can't avoid that. If your products follow in the wake of others then speed is the most important - get something simple which you know how to do out there asap. Once that's done, you can get your innovation worked out for the follow up, still maintaining some speed but, of course, in both instances it costs money. Lots.

Combining speed and innovation is, in David's words, going to make you "fall flat on your face".

Failure 4: Fail fast Fail frugal Fail again

This is true just given his introduction, covering 15 years of, mostly, failure. Lots of 'em. Build a prototype, as cheaply as you can, test it. Take the feedback and roll with it again. The same is true when we're trying out innovative teaching practice: give wee bits of it a go, fail, don't lose the kids or your sanity and learn from what didn't work to come back at it from a different angle. Everything will fail. Just get to that failure first and before anyone else does.

This links into David's latest, more successful way of being creative on a frequent basis: the microventure. This way of working is exactly what I try to imbue in my workplaces, with varied success ;-). David and his associates want to start at least 35 companies in the next five years, most of them if not all self-funded. They will target underserved niches, happy if coincidentally one or two of those niches overflow into the mainstream, though it doesn't really matter in this global marketplace.

Roi To get return on investment they make the investment small (a microventure) and any return will mean the ROI is relatively large, and therefore successful. Quick wins are essential, not superficial, so that the company is sustainable. Investment can't be nothing - $25,000 is small in David's world. So don't make the mistake of ROI being the same as ROE - return on effort requires small but significant, small but well-targeted and intelligently used effort.

Failure 5: Don't to a me-too - get obvious advantage

Don't do a me-too when it comes to innovating; find something where you are adding on obvious advantage. In the business world the Far East is specialist in me-too companies, thrashing out widgets. In the West, in Scotland, we need to produce things with added obvious value if we are to be exceptional.

Failure 6: Keep your credibility

What is it you do? Work it out and keep to it. Straying from what you are good at doing or what you tasked yourself to do strains your credibility.

How does failure like this work in education?
1 . Cool stuff: we constantly put ourselves under pressure to come up with cool entertaining stuff to get the kids educated better, deeper, wider or in a more motivating way. We're never going to get that all the time, so is it worth investing more energy in one or two big projects where we can see a feasible sign of success?

2. Link it to reality: so many projects to effect educational change don't offer a hook to what we do at the moment. Unless we can hook onto reality of today we can't expect to make a success of the unknown of tomorrow. School 2.0? Let's work our way there through all the 0.1s first.

3. You can't have it all: We can't have huge innovation in broadband overnight without huge cost. Spending money in one area means another suffers. Do you want high speed with no means to publish or a means to publish which is a bit sluggish in school? We'll always have to make that choice - nothing will change.

4. Fail fast, fail frugal, fail again: I'm not convinced the public sector allows us to do this. Projects are generally funded (saying you just want to do a project with no funding means the project is not taken seriously), and sometimes overfunded. There's rarely a get-out clause - part fund people until they fail and then part fund again until they have success. Website rarely just appear, they're always launched. A bit like most education initiatives. Maybe there's something to learn here.

5. Don't do a me-too: It's easy to copy others' ideas and think that what they're doing is the best possible thing. Don't. The best ideas are borne out of a localised, individual need. Satisfy what you need in your classroom and someone else might find it useful, but don't feel you have to join a bandwagon if it's going to stop you spotting a success for your own class.

6. Keep your credibility: I think teachers are pretty good at this. What are the instances of people losing their credibility through social media, though? Plenty.

More failures and what it means for education coming soon...


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Great post. Thanks I find that kids are afraid to fail and take risks today. When we learn to ride a bike or skate we fall down all the time and get hurt. Kids do not want to take those risks with their learning. They just want the right answer without working hard at it. When we create assignments that captivate them and make them want to learn they start to take risks and learn from their mistakes.

I'll blog about this more later. Thanks again. Great post

When we were formulating our approach for our 'school of ambition' bid, we spent a lot of time talking about the leadership strand.
We decided one of the main parts of this, we decided, was the confidence to fail. This caused great debate.
Confidence to try new things, by staff and pupils, and take the risk of failing.
I think this was the biggest step for the whole community. Not to follow the well worn path

Ewan, we are having David over again this Spring 2009. Should be a good one.

Michael Clouser, Edinburgh-Stanford Link

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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