Learn from failure by looking for the seeds of success

Perhaps this quote from Winston Churchill should be borne in mind. “Success is not final, failure is not fatal,” he said. “It is the courage to continue that counts.”

To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, success has a thousand fathers, but failure is an orphan. However, according to Colleen Macklin and John Sharp, authors of a new book, Iterate: Ten Lessons in Design and Failure*, failure often opens a critical path forward.

Understanding the reasons for failure is crucial for real progress, and there has to be a readiness to engage in a process of tests and experiments to eventually reach the goal.

In the method they have developed, there is a series of loops – iterations – forming a cyclical process of conceptualising, prototyping, testing and evaluating.

As game designers, Macklin and Sharp have encountered failure many times, but they also recognise that any game involves learning through failed attempts. They lay out four components of creative practice: intention, outcome, process, and evaluation.

This set of components would be familiar to anyone who has, for example, learned to play a musical instrument or become proficient in a sport. The point, however, is to make the process of iteration conscious, organised and systematic.

As part of their research, they examined successful people in a very diverse set of fields – art, cooking, animation, winemaking, architecture, game design, jazz, skateboarding, toy design and even comedy. A common thread was iteration: examining failures, looking for the reasons, and incorporating improvements in the next attempt.

Moving toward success

An important aspect is to know what success will look like. Artists often find success difficult to define but easy to recognise; success is often clearer in business issues, as there is usually some sort of metric. However, the principle of incremental improvement through iteration remains, as well as the necessity of careful evaluation of the reasons for failure. In some cases, this evaluation can mean going back to the basic assumptions to check for flaws.

Interestingly, even artists, athletes and entertainers will draw upon external help. The idea of the struggling individual toiling in isolation is more myth than reality. More often, they are part of “a community of practice”, according to the authors. Even the skateboarder – one of the book’s case studies – draws upon the expertise of peers and mentors in the development of new tricks and moves. 

Macklin and Sharp describe learning from this kind of failure as a necessary part of the process. Predicted failures, with outside advice, can be transformed into data that will inform the next loop in the cycle.

Collecting data

This points toward the need for careful record-keeping and data analysis. The comedian discussed in the book repeatedly listens to recordings of his performances, examining his own work as well as audience responses. He takes careful notes to help him hone each performance, a form of “continual improvement”. 

Evaluation should take place during the iteration process and after the process is complete. There can be many reasons for failure, from unsuitable technology and material and a lack of resources, to a misunderstanding of the external environment. Knowing why something fails is the key to understanding why it eventually succeeds. It is akin to the scientific process of repeated observation to learn the underlying rules.

It is true that business does not always allow the time or resources for protracted iterations that artists might enjoy. Yet even in such cases, there is much that can be learned from understanding the reasons for failure in a systematic way. The lessons can often be transferred to other projects, and all add to the base of expertise of the organisation.

As much as anything, taking away positive results from failure is a matter of mindset.

Macklin and Sharp emphasise that failure and success should not be conceptualised as opposites. They see success and failure as stops along the iterative cycle, linked together.

This change of thinking is not an easy step to take. Our failures might be the only thing we can really call our own, but in a society that often appears to be only interested in stories of success, failure can often be embarrassing, even shameful. Getting past the stigma associated with failure can be difficult.

Perhaps this quote from Winston Churchill should be borne in mind. “Success is not final, failure is not fatal,” he said. “It is the courage to continue that counts.”

* Iterate: Ten Lessons in Design and Failure, by Colleen Macklin and John Sharp, MIT Press, $70.

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May 2021
May 2021

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