Failure is a Failure

Failure is all the rage these days. Recently, from HBR alone, we have David Simms talking about the power of positive failure (and Scott Anthony’s response), and the excellent series on lessons from the military often touches on the topic. And tomorrow see this website for an entire special issue on the topic.

It’s like the mini-craze a few years ago for Absinthe, the alcoholic drink favored by 19th century artists (van Gogh, Degas, among others) that was banned in many countries over fears about its hallucinogenic qualities. Failure is the thing all the cool kids are doing, it’s edgy and daring, and it may be bad for you or it may open up inspired new ways of thinking (perhaps both at the same time).

Companies and organizations of all stripes are trying to encourage their people to take more risks and encourage failure as they seek out more and more innovation. As the visual designer for Tron: Legacy remarked, “Failure makes perfect.” Certainly it’s one of those things that’s easier said than done: failure is fun as an intellectual exercise, but rarely enjoyable when you’re in the midst of it or dealing with the aftermath.

Tolerance for failure is good, up to a point. But is failure what we should be so focused on? I think not.

It’s good that there is a wider appreciation that failure is an inherent part of innovation and taking risks. Organizations are trying to adjust their cultures, attitudes, hiring practices, and compensation and incentive schemes so that a failure becomes less of a career-ender, allowing experimentation to flourish more. Yoda may have been wise in many things, but he wasn’t much of an experimenter; his statement “Do or do not. There is no try” is the antithesis of the innovator’s credo. The innovator is all about trying, and hopefully you’ll get to a successful “do” somewhere along the line.

Fetishize Learning, Not Failure

While this loosening of attitudes toward failure is undoubtedly valuable, we want to be careful that we’re not focusing on the wrong thing. Failure is not our goal. We should not fetishize failure in and of itself. Failure is simply a common byproduct — it’s not the desired end-product. Even the most zealous innovator doesn’t set out to fail.

The only way that failure becomes useful is if you learn from it. If you keep failing and fail to learn, then you really have failed. If you fail repeatedly but increase your knowledge with each dead end and can put that knowledge to work in the next round, then you are succeeding. What we need to fetishize when innovating and taking risks, therefore, is learning.

What knowledge can we extract and feed forward into the next round of work? What can a specific failure teach us more generally (in other words, what are the principles we take away)? Is there an underlying idea that is still valuable even if this specific manifestation didn’t work out? If you’re not asking these kinds of questions, then you are failing at failing.

(This article originally appeared at Harvard Business Review Online)