• John Bowie

Turn 'em Loose! #7: Failure

Updated: Oct 14, 2020


I once had the honor of leading (and being led by) a team that consistently produced outstanding designs that delighted both our customers and the leadership of our organization – except one time. The one failure involved designing a completely new experience for a cohort of customers who were known to be very diverse and who had an extremely low tolerance for technology. The design solution would have to be both visually engaging and extraordinarily simple.

After several iterations, the “final” attempt was shared with the organization in a design review. Afterwards, the CTO pulled me aside and as gently as possible told me that he and the rest of the leadership team were disappointed with our design.

It’s never fun to hear that your stakeholders believe that your team has failed. We were discouraged, but only for an hour or so.

I called an impromptu meeting with the team and shared the feedback with them. Yes, I know, it’s a cliché in business to recast every setback as an opportunity, but this one really was. I told the team (and believed it myself) that this failure was an opportunity to be heroes. No one – and especially not our competitors – had succeeded in designing a solution that satisfied the big unmet needs of this particular audience. Our team, I told them, was uniquely qualified to be the first. If we could get past this temporary failure and demonstrate to our stakeholders that we had the talent and the persistence to solve this problem, our esteem within the organization would skyrocket.

We had only a few days – not weeks – before we promised to deliver a new approach to the leadership team. While the mission before us was urgent, the challenge was also liberating. We abandoned all constraints and let our creative juices run wild. Of course, we didn’t produce just one alternative design, but five unique solutions, each with a different theme. To be clear, though, as director of the team, I issued the challenge and backed off, giving the designers the time and space they needed to work. So, when I say “we,” I really mean “they” – the designers deserve all the credit.

The new designs were a huge success and confidence in our team was restored. In just a matter of days, we had turned what could have been a debilitating failure into a resounding success.

The mantra in many lean development organizations is to embrace a strategy of failing fast so that the team can understand what works and what doesn’t work and converge on success more quickly. Innovation is produced through a process of rapid experimentation. Yet process-heavy companies still exist that require every project to follow a prescribed sequence of steps in order to reach a “certified” result. These processes (really just well-documented fads) include time-sink activities that delay discovery of workable solutions and kill inspiration and invention. Imagine, for example, if Thomas Edison had been forced to follow Six Sigma in his quest to invent the light bulb. We’d be sitting in the dark today.

Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter once said that “in the middle, everything looks like a failure.” Success, too, looks like failure in the middle. We all face failure; we just have to have the persistence and confidence to push past it, to see it as an opportunity for ever greater success. As the leader of a creative team, you do this by reframing the failure as a challenge that your team is uniquely qualified to solve.

Then turn ‘em loose!

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