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Innovation Culture Bulletin: Be nice to failure

Work & Lifestyle

Not beating yourself up when failures and mistakes inevitably happen can have a powerful impact on the way you work.

They say do to others as you would have them do to you. But for the self-critical individual, chances are you are much harsher on yourself when you make mistakes than you would be to your colleagues, friends and family. Humans are the only creatures that make themselves suffer through negative emotions, particularly of self-judgment, regrets, and failed expectations. In today’s connected world, we also constantly put ourselves up for comparison with others’ constructed, perceived successes.

In some ways, healthy competition is good motivation. But as Mark Leary, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, South Carolina suggests, there are some ways of thinking about oneself that will prove more beneficial than others. Those on the harsh end of the self-critical spectrum beat themselves up when they make mistakes, set unreasonable expectations for their companies, dwell on failures, and exaggerate difficulties. But on the other end, we get the entrepreneurs that evaluate themselves with more kindness, accepting that mistakes are inevitable and that every business has shortcomings. These individuals are not slacking or opening the chance to slide into mediocrity, but treating themselves as they would to other people when difficulties arise.

This attitude of self-compassion can have a powerful effect on the way you work. When problems occur, whether it’s due to their own incompetence, lack of self-control, carelessness, or no one’s fault at all, a self-compassionate entrepreneur recognizes obstacles as a normal part of life. Instead of being overwhelmed with negative thoughts, they can approach the problem with level-headedness. Psychological research shows that “people who are high in self-compassion deal more successfully with negative events such as failure…just as receiving compassion from another person helps us to cope.”

So what are some steps we can take to make fail fast, fail often a learning experience rather than a pain point? This month’s Innovation Culture Bulletin Five has some suggestions.

1. Shared Humanity. Empathy and the idea of common humanity is not just a key ingredient to building a much-loved product. As Dr Kirstin Neff, developmental psychologist who first brought the idea of self-compassion to the attention of the industry argues, it is also an essential building block of self-compassionate thinking. Compassion comes from realizing that people have shared, mutual experiences, and recognizing that others also go through failures, shame, and feelings of inadequacy, helps us think less on the individualistic, personal level, less in the mind frame of “Why me?”, and more on the bigger picture.

2. Rapid prototyping. Elon Musk is known for saying that if a business isn’t failing enough, it is not innovating enough. A way to ensure fast failing is to streamline the process of ideation to prototyping to testing. Building these paths will give you a way to quickly test the product on end users and present analysis to potential stakeholders. Define exactly what you want to test, and efficiently (cheaply) build just enough of a prototype that lets you test those ideas. When analyzing your results, make sure to gather only the meaningful outcomes. There are now many services — Magzor Mechatronics and Fictiv — that help users prototype quickly.

3. Downplay the guilt. When we fail, our first reaction is to blame ourselves or others. We analyze the role we played, the mistakes we made, and how we were responsible. Of course, retracing your steps is helpful and important, but be careful not to go beyond the objective assessment of your work, as that can bring on additional distress. This way, you also save more mental space for dealing with the problem at hand — some of the most successful companies had initial failures but got right up and tried again.

4. Be sharp with the feedback you receive. On the flip side of downplaying the blame game, make sure that the feedback you receive is also assessed objectively. Treat each comment with focus, make sure to stay within the limits of what you’re testing, knowing that not all feedback is good. Using AI mechanisms can help you gather feedback from users, IntelligentX’s beer brewing process may give you some inspiration…

5. Rehearse for failure and catch it early. For any business, there will inevitably be certain failures that happen more than others, for example, customer service during new product launch will be bound to encounter obstacles. Preempting these potential failures will help your team catch them early. This does not mean a strategy should be killed if the chances of success are low — on the contrary, a low success rate is perfect for ‘fast failing’ so the product can go through the feedback loop and be refined sooner.