Success is a scarcity, especially in innovation. In fact, one of the few certainties in life is that everything will fail at some moment. Few innovations and experiments succeed, and even the biggest success stories end at one point. It’s just the tendency of our universe towards entropy and disorder. Could be after 70 years, like in the case of Toys R Us, but happen it will.
So, let’s say that about 5% (I’m using this exceedingly speculative statistic for a reason; bear with me.) of all the endeavors of all the startups, scaleups, SMEs, and humongous corporations in the world amount to a big hit. That’s not much, right?
So why do we try to understand success by investigating only this tiny portion of positive results in the world of organizations? That’s insane if you think about it.
The informational value of success is vastly overrated
Truth lies in numbers. It only surfaces through the patterns in a deep and seemingly chaotic sea of data. You would never base a delicate and far-reaching decision on a small test-group of 37 people, however relevant their profiles are, right? Yet, that’s exactly what we are trying to do when we only measure “what works” in companies or on a market level.
Thinking about this reminded me of one of science's most interesting mysteries: dark matter and dark energy. We only "know" about 5% (the numbers vary, but everyone agrees that it’s a tiny portion) of the knowable world. All the rest is dark matter (about 27%) and dark energy (about 68%), which are basically fancy and highly imaginative descriptions for “we have no f***ing clue what they are, but according to our measurements they are definitely there; otherwise we cannot possibly explain how the universe is expanding.”
Our failure to "see" and understand dark matter is probably why – even though science absolutely rocks, you guys – there are so many things we do not yet have a solid explanation for. One example is that we lack an approved theory that unites quantum mechanics (which explains how things work on a microscopic scale) and general relativity (which explains forces on a cosmic scale. To explain the universe, we will need to understand and analyze all the matter and all the energy.
And, just like that, to explain how organizations work, you need to have all the data: the 5% success as well as the 95% failures.
A new mindset for failure: from shame to measurement
To start measuring failure, we need a change of behavior. We must stop being ashamed and trying to sweep it under the rug. True, there is a slowly changing attitude in the matter (Silicon Valley may be quite good at it, but we’re not there yet in good old Europe), but we still happily move on when our endeavors do not show the planned results and tend to communicate about it as little as possible. We’re learning to accept it, as the unavoidable part of experimenting, testing and innovating. But we still don’t like being confronted with it.
"To start measuring failure, we need a change of behavior. We must stop being ashamed and trying to sweep it under the rug."
It’s true that when our employees fail, they learn from it. But these lessons only tend to happen on an individual micro-level – and at best on a team-based level. They rarely spread throughout the rest of the organizational system because we’re still embarrassed.
It’s high time for a change in mindset. Yes, we can learn from it on a micro-level, but above all, failure is precious information on a macro-level. We should cherish it instead of hiding it. It’s crucial we talk about it on an organizational level and share what worked, what didn’t work, and what we learned. It’s also essential that we preserve the data in a way that it can be mined to uncover the patterns that drive the dynamics of both failure and success, especially in large corporations with longer lines of communication.
And when we zoom out even more, we really ought to measure the failed companies as well as their context if we really want to get to the bottom of what makes successful organizations tick. Though this does happen, it is not nearly enough.
Does all this mean that I believe in a secret ingredient of organizational success? Of course not. It all depends on your team, your culture, where you’re based, what the economic situation is, etc. But I do believe that we can go about this in a more fact-based way and that we tend to measure the wrong thing. Success stories are a powerful source of inspiration (it’s the reason why my company nexxworks exists), but if we truly want to understand success, we need all the data.
Why Failure is So Important for a Successful Innovation Strategy by Maria Wenning
The Value of Failure in Innovation by John Bessant
Laurence Van Elegem is the Creative & Communications Director at nexxworks, which inspires and connects innovators all over the world. Nexxworks kickstarts innovation through (tailored) innovation programs, with the latest evolutions in business and technology and by encouraging companies to combine a long-term vision with short-term initiatives. The nexxworks network of international and local like-minded entrepreneurs, innovators, experts and speakers plays a crucial role in this. Check out nexxworks’ upcoming innovation programs here.