“I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work” – Thomas Edison
At the very core of entrepreneurship is innovation– and in many cases – also failure. The reality is that a journey towards successful innovation, as an entrepreneur or otherwise, is never without trial and error.
In fact, the term innovation itself refers to the notion of doing something differently to create more value. This state of value creation can only be achieved when multiple new ideas – such as products, services, processes or otherwise – are piloted, scrapped and improved upon over a period of time.
Early-stage entrepreneurs can especially benefit by being open to failure because only when solutions are tested, feedback shared and iterations made can true innovation occur. A transparent and collaborative approach to failure promotes adaptive planning and encourages rapid, as well as flexible, responses to change.
If dynamic entrepreneurs can leverage the concept of admitting failure, they can often identify forward-thinking approaches and generate social and commercial success through their startup ventures.
With the above in mind, Ennovent recently spoke with Ashley Good, Founder and CEO of Admitting Failure, and David Damberger, featured TED speaker on the topic of admitting failure and current Strategy Advisor for New Product Development at M-KOPA in Kenya, about why organisations must make admitting failure a priority.
What are the benefits of admitting failure?
Ashley: The idea behind admitting failure is to fail forward. The first benefit is the learning you get. Basically when you do any project, if you fail at it the return on investment is lost so the only return on investment you can gain is a learning return and failing forward is all about maximizing your learning.
Admitting failure also creates space for innovation. Because, to try anything new you need a space where failure where is allowed so that you can push boundaries and be innovative. Otherwise the risks will always outweigh the benefits of trying anything new.
David: While admitting failure is an easy concept to talk about, it is much harder to implement, especially in the development sector for social enterprises and NGOs. For me the key benefit is the learning and feeling of community that comes from accepting mistakes.
It is very hard for individuals to see failures as failures and you often need a community that works together to reflect on areas where they may have been weak so that new ideas and approaches can be shared. Only when this sharing occurs can innovation then take place.
Do you feel enterprises that focus on developing solutions for low-income markets are better placed to address some problems as compared to development agencies?
Ashley: Social enterprises are better placed in two ways. Firstly, they are designed to be financially sustainable and easily bend and adapt to the needs of the market. The progression of their idea therefore becomes easier to scale. Secondly, these enterprises are accountable to their customers, meaning the people who are in need of the innovations. This is compared to NGOs where the donor is the main beneficiary rather than the community the innovation is meant to help.
That saying, NGOs continue to play an important middle role between private companies that primarily innovate for profitability and the government, which often cannot innovate too much or change too rapidly.
David: Yes and No. A social enterprise to me is just like a normal enterprise. The difference being that they are tackling social problems and have patient investors that are ready to accept low returns for a long time in lieu of social impact. Broadly, social enterprises are better placed as they have a market-linked approach and are dependant on the market accepting the solution to succeed. Moreover, they are ready to try multiple things differently and make quick pivots, which is not something you will see many NGOs doing. However, in saying that I do believe that in sectors like health, education and water often a private public partnership works better.
Why do we need an open culture of failing?
Ashley: Around the world our education systems have trained us into becoming robots that are really good at memorising and accomplishing linear tasks. However, most of the social problems we are facing are complex and non-linear and require thinking that is not process focused. Including failure as an element of our work life is a means of changing the way that we are conditioned to think. To challenge the status quo, failure is required. And ultimately, social enterprises are already challenging the status quo that businesses only exist to make a profit.
David: To be innovative we need to fail. Look at the culture prevalent in the west coast of USA. There, if you are not taking a risk and being innovative people look down on you. That kind of culture came about because a few people stood up and said:“I don’t care what you think, I am going to go ahead and do it anyway.” As those people succeeded, the startup concept got traction and it became cool to take risks and become entrepreneurs. Similarly to make admitting failure an accepted concept we need enough mentors, experts and investors to support entrepreneurs in failing forward and incorporating that learning into the future of that enterprise.
Within the development sector, some publications and bloggers came out saying that “admitting failure” has become the new “green” or “sustainability” fad and it is often more of a PR exercise for companies – what are your thoughts on that?
Ashley: It could be a fad. But does it matter? From what I have seen there is a real need for better learning and innovation within the social and development sector. I see admitting failure as one piece of the puzzle. There are hundreds of people working at creating innovation in the social sector and admitting failure is a new technique that can play a really crucial role in aiding the process of innovation.
David: I agree (laughs). The development sector overall is good at creating fads, take sustainability for example. But, the reason that they are now referred to as ‘fads’ is because of the huge traction it has received from organisations globally and because everyone is doing it. What we need to realise is that all of these are just concepts used to answer the overarching problems.
Similarly admitting failure is just one tool to improve accountability and transparency in an organisation. There is this thinking that an organisation just needs to focus on two or three things like green or sustainability to make a difference and so they become buzzwords. The reality is that these are complex problems and concepts like admitting failure is just the activity you do to help you learn. The ultimate goal here is to learn and innovate.
Admitting failure is a core component of organizational culture. Try new concepts; secure feedback from clients and stakeholders and work to incorporate principles of agile development into your business approach.
Only through continuous experimentation, feedback and failing forward can Ennovent fulfill its mission to Discover, Startup, Finance and Scale the best innovations for sustainability in low-income markets. What steps are you taking in your organisation towards admitting failure? Please share your questions, comments and insights.