The Importance of Failure
Failure isn’t just for startups
Whilst discussing my experiments in bread making with friends, I was given cause to consider our attitudes towards failure.
In the field of innovation, the mantra (perpetuated by the likes of Google and Facebook) is Fail Fast. It’s received wisdom, no one in startup land questions the fact that many startup ideas will fail, and even the successful ones are largely built on the learnings from a succession of past failures.
For entrepreneurs and investors, failure is not only acceptable, it’s desirable. Many investors will feel a greater degree of confidence in a startup that is run by someone who’s already had a failed enterprise. On the face of it, this sounds counterintuitive. Surely you’d be more inclined to back an entrepreneur who had exited successfully (sold their startup to a larger business). The logic applied by investors is that startup founders are unlikely to make the same mistakes twice.
Failure is an excellent way of learning valuable lessons - hence ‘Fail Fast’. When embarking on a new project, once you accept that some level of failure is inevitable, it’s going to be much much cheaper (both emotionally and financially) to fail early on in a project. Failure at the end of a project means going back to the beginning - a much longer and more expensive journey than failing early on.
So the world of innovation and entrepreneurialism has embraced failure - and by this I mean that the stigma of not getting it right first time has been replaced by the knowledge that it’s an essential part of the process that cannot be ignored and better still, can be used to improve the overall outcome.
And then there’s the rest of us.
When was the last time you cooked a meal that didn't work? For me it’s a monthly occurrence. Even now, several years after starting to bake all my own bread, I regularly have batches that don’t work - rock hard dense slabs of baked flour or tasteless sponges (when I forget the salt).
Oftentimes a failed recipe will lead me to strike the meal from my repertoire. I still shudder when I think about an ill-fated vegetable biryani that almost finished us off.
So we can excel at being hard on ourselves - especially when we’ve invested time and energy in something and it doesn't come out the way we wanted.
Things are worse in the work environment. At work we have the added pressure of ensuring that we don’t mess up something that will cost our employers money or reputation. Added to this, many of us have bosses who (we imagine) would think less of us for failing. Failure could cost us a pay rise, or even our job.
Many large organisations have a stated ambition to embrace failure. The simple truth is that whilst CEO’s and company leaders say they want their companies to embrace failure, we as individuals can often view failure in others as a flaw and see failure in ourselves as a sign of weakness that could risk our ability to pay the mortgage or service or car loan. In short, we’re scared of messing up and getting “found out”.
Failure vs wilful incompetence.
Many of these problems stem from a failure to recognise the difference between failure due incompetence and failure due to risk taking.
Taking risks is the only way we can expand our worlds, both in a work and in our personal lives. Again it’s important to differentiate between calculated risks and recklessness.
Instinctively we know the difference - Recklessness carries the risk of harm to others whereas calculated risk comes with the possibility of failure, but with the promise of expanding our horizons.
Recklessness and wilful incompetence are completely different from the kind of failure that can help improve the longer term outcomes.
The cautionary tale of Juicero - and how we can learn from their failure
Juicero was a well funded ($120m) startup that had not only designed a $600 wifi connected juice machine, but had created an entire supply chain of producers to fulfil their anticipated market needs as well as a subscription model to buy the pouches.
The machine was a marvel of engineering. It was capable of recognising the contents of the back (using a built in QR scanner). Every component was custom designed and manufactured - even the power supply. Other parts were high quality plastic and machined aluminium. The components were top notch, the design - like something from the Apple store.
There were some big problems;
Customers were only offered a one-size fits all subscription model.
If the juice pouches were even a day past their use-by date, the machine refused to crush them
The USP of the machine was that it was able to crush all kinds of vegetables and fruit into juice. However, as this brilliant tear-down post by Ben Einstein of Bolt demonstrated, so could human hands.
There are a number of points at which we can, in retrospect, identify the points of failure in this story, but most of them can be traced back to one oversight the startup made right at the beginning,
They never actually asked a fundamental question - what do users want?
To be clear, they certainly felt that they were answering a need for people to be able to get fresh juice in their homes, but rather than validating that basic assumption and a bunch of subsequent ones, they spent years designing and building a massively over-engineered product that very few people were prepared to pay for (especially once it became known that you could crush the same pouches with human hands).
Specifically they could have spent more time understanding the juicing habits of the target consumers (rather than the juicing habits of the CEO). This could have helped them develop a more flexible approach to the pouch purchasing.
They could have tested early versions of the product to see how people were going to use it. They might have seen how many people are prepared to use pouches that were slightly past their ‘best before’ date. They might even have discovered that people would like the option of creating their own pouches.
Who’s to say whether this beautifully designed machine would have been successful? As Ben Einstein suggests, maybe if the startup had only had $10m in funding rather than $120m, they might have taken a more user-centric iterative approach to the design process.
The essence of a user-centric iterative process is simple
At every step of the project, you test what you’ve done with the intended end-user. You take the feedback they give you and you choose whether to incorporate it into the development process.
You will probably end up at a slightly different destination than you expected to when you set off, but the final solution will be a much better fit for the user. And importantly, any erroneous assumptions you’ve made will come to light early on, before they cost time and money.
We need to see failures as learning opportunities
Fail Fast means take the opportunity to learn fast. This is as true for startups as it is for us as individuals.
By reframing the potential mistakes in our lives as opportunities to improve our knowledge, skills and emotional toolkit, we can be more brave in the kind of things we try.
We also need to challenge ourselves to be more forgiving of failures in others. People around us are going to mess up. Our friends are going to mess up. Our kids are going to mess up. We can either choose to support them in learning from the experience or we can make them wish they’d never tried in the first place.
If we do the former, we’ll be helping others be far more supportive of our failures. And, assuming you want to do more in your life than follow a set of instructions given to you by someone else, you are going to have failures.
Look forward to failure pudding
When I was a kid we used to look forward to my mum’s failure puddings. She would often try new recipes - some would work, some wouldn't, but they were always fun to try. Over the years, criticism from my father, and a few too many jokes from her children resulted in less experiments and fewer new puddings.
I don’t think a narrower repertoire of guaranteed successes (basically chocolate mousse) was worth the price of avoiding the failure puddings.
Embrace the failure pudding.