Failing Forward: Innovation can emerge from unlikely places

Date Posted

“Innovation Insight” is a blog series written by SRC’s CEO and President, Dr. Laurier Schramm, which aims to shed light on the importance of innovation in driving economic, societal and environmental growth.

Terms like “Fail Fast,” “Fail Cheap,” and “Fail Early” are often used in discussions about innovation, especially with regard to product development, entrepreneurs, and start-up companies. My favourite is “Fail Forward.” failure is only the opportunity to begin again - quote Henry Ford

Two Key Concepts of Failing Forward

The first concept is do not fear failures, but learn from them. The second key concept is it's better to learn quickly if a new idea, product, process, or service isn’t going to be successful so that it can either be improved or abandoned in favour of a new one.

People aren’t usually encouraged to fail at anything, and it’s easy to become demoralized by a failure, but a failed experiment, process, project, or even product can present a great learning opportunity. In my own career, I’ve taken solace in a reflection by Danish physicist Niels Bohr, that “an expert is a person who has found out by [their] own painful experience all the mistakes that one can make in a very narrow field.”

Learning why something has failed can be a critical part of the inventive process, and it has led shrewd researchers to develop some amazing inventions and innovations. For example, in 1953 at the Rocket Chemical Company, Norm Larsen and two colleagues were trying to develop a water-displacing, rust-prevention coating for use in the aerospace industry. Their attempts failed 39 times, but because they were persistent and learned from their failures, their 40th attempt was successful and also gave them the name for the new product: WD-40 (i.e., water displacement product, 40th try).

The American industrialist Henry Ford wrote, “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently. There is no disgrace in honest failure; there is disgrace in fearing to fail.” It’s not that a failure of any kind is some kind of goal – of course it isn’t - the point is to determine as early as possible if something isn’t going to work, accept it, learn from it, come up with a new or revised approach, and move forward.

Importance of Failing in Product Development

In product development, testing a new product, process or service idea and finding that it doesn’t resonate with the market should be viewed as a valuable step forward. The learnings from such an experiment can be taken into account when designing and developing the next product, process or service, which can then be taken back to the marketplace for re-testing. Viewed as an innovation process, such early prototypes don’t need to be viewed as failures so much as learning events along the pathway to an ultimate success. American inventor and innovator Thomas A. Edison once said, “… I have gotten a lot of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work.”

“Failing Forward” can mean designing and implementing small tests in order to develop resilience to failures, learning from them, being adaptable, and overcoming them without risking an entire initiative (or enterprise) on any of them. In product development for example, an alternative to developing full product/process/services at an early stage is to develop "looks like" or "works like" prototypes that can be shown to prospective customers in order to get feedback. This can be a way to reduce the costs associated with each development cycle.

Fail with Care

Like all tools, this one needs to be used with care. Experimenting at any stage of research and development costs time and money, and too many failures can make the total development cost prohibitive, destroy projects and even entire companies. So while there can be advantages to “Fail Fast” and “Fail Often,” one might hasten to add “Fail Small” and “Fail Cheap.”

It can actually be helpful to experience one or more small failures from which useful learnings can be obtained, increasing the probability of achieving a significant technological success, rather than risking a single large failure that might be disastrous.

What examples are you aware of, from which failures were the key to ultimate success?  

Further reading:  Maxwell, J.C., “Failing Forward,” Thomas Nelson Publishers, New York, 2000.