Designing out of the “failure fetish”

This is something that’s been burning in my mind for awhile now ;-) So, perusing current business magazines, books, and blogs you’ll notice a couple things: the popular, dramatic increase in “design thinking” as a topic, and as a corollary, the rise in “failure” being glorified as something to be welcomed and accepted. While it’s admirable “design thinking” has made strong inroads among companies and institutions, for the aims of advancing creative, non-linear approaches to handling complex problems, I’m completely perplexed by this frankly weird penchant for “failure” as a wonderful thing. Who wants to fail? 

So I try to rationalize it in a couple ways:

– “Failure” is a way to shock the linear, rigid, lockstep cultures of guaranteed certainty into realizing they’re not perfect and that it’s acceptable to screw up in a big way (i.e., fail). 

– “Failure” is really a misnomer for “mistakes”. Hey, it’s okay to make mistakes, stumble along, course correct, learn what didn’t work and try again with stronger resolve. That’s how improvement happens, after all.

But for me, I’ve always thought of failure as an absolute– When you fail, you fail. Period. Failure is an ending. It’s horrible, embarrassing, and stressful. It can be quite career damaging and personally traumatizing, even life-threatening in certain contexts (see also: NASA, Navy SEALs, Hospital ER). Nobody truly craves failure and no process should ever exhort someone to “fail”. That’s absurd and denies the very progressive attitude of ongoing success and learnable achievement that keeps a team going forward. It’s also dangerously nihilistic as failure is a terminal point, in my view.

Maybe it’s “just semantics” to some, but it’s also deeply symbolic and hugely important to apply language usefully. Glorifying failure is at best naive and at worst perverse. 

Instead of glorifying “failure”, we should encourage positive experimentation, recognizing that flaws and mistakes and stumbles will occur–and that’s ok– as we learn something that’s unfolding with no guarantee of success. It’s an optimistic attitude of improvisation and flexibility, speaking to a Darwinian approach to adaptation AND also, a dance-like nature of design as collaborative endeavor, as in we “we all rise and fall together…and help each other pick ourselves up.” But that’s a far cry from “failure”, which is individual and traumatic. Let’s design our way out of this silly “failure fetish” that business leaders have fallen for, and instead popularize trying, making mistakes, and learning forward. As President Obama himself has referenced, “We value those teachable moments.” Empathizing, sketching, and prototyping enable an upbeat model of discovery and iteration where success is valued, not failure. It’s the way to design a team’s goals forward to solving the thorniest of problems, in a supportive collaborative manner, where everyone LEARNS and SUCCEEDS. After all, isn’t that what it’s all about?

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