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How to fail like a rock star

by Erin Rohl

We talk a lot about flawed success in design, a term describing a mostly-great solution that needs a few adjustments. Everyone of course strives for perfection, but a flawed success is usually what you get.

It’s easy to find the humbleness required to learn from a flawed success. After all, you tried, you were mostly on mark, and now you know how to make it better for next time.

“Won’t make that mistake again…”

“It needs tweaking but we’re pretty much there…”

“Right idea, wrong format – let’s regroup…”

It is significantly more difficult to acknowledge our flat-out-failures, and it’s too bad because they are worth their weight in gold. In business-land, cultures may declare the value of failure but usually follow up with a list of risk-averse policies. In most social and public services, there are long channels of checks and balances that attempt to filter for success before taking any kind of real action.

In health care especially, ribbons of red tape are strung about in efforts to avoid risk and filter ideas before they see interaction with a human impacted by their implementation. Quite often the development of these systems are flagrant in time and cost, all in the effort to generate a perfect success with the least risk. An epic win.

(Extremely rare, epic wins. Even with the very best of planning an epic win almost always feels like a happy surprise – finding a crisp one hundred between the sofa cushions, or crossing paths with an old friend. Delightful, but hard to plan for.)

When failure happens after long and expensive planning there’s a lot of blame to go around. This creates an environment where people don’t feel safe expressing their ideas. When people are scared to be judged by the merit of their ideas they’ll censor for quality, without fail, and will rely on group-think and mediocrity to keep their necks safe. There’s not a whole lot of innovation that stems from group-think and mediocrity.

But when experiments are short-lived and cheap, risk plummets and value sky-rockets. People working within a safe environment of short, cheap experiments will quickly recognize that failure is an important sponsor of performance. The only real way to know if ideas work is to try them out. Sometimes they don’t work. Better to know now than later.

When systems – and people – support a culture of failure, amazing things can happen. People learn from other’s mistakes. New ideas seek Venn overlap. Like minds pursue each other. Failures avoid repetition.

Despite all this, however, admitting failure is still seen as a bit revolutionary. I understand – it can put you in a very vulnerable position. Obviously the best way to defend yourself is to own your failures with the swagger of a rock star. I’ll tell you how.

Generate without censoring.

The first thing you absolutely must do is stop filtering yourself. How do you know what kind of brilliance might fall out of your brain if you're doing all the judgement internally? This is not the time to censor ideas, or judge others for theirs.

I’ve taken part in hundreds of brainstorming sessions, both formal and social, and there’s three types of participants. I call them Nope, Nice! and WTF?!

Nope hates everything that everyone else suggests and is just waiting for that one flash of brilliance that can only come from themselves. Definitely a more selfish beast, Nopes get contribution mixed up with competition and hardly ever win fair or play nice. Rarely is there an opportunity for influence – Nope never changes their mind. The subtle ones just complain in a corner – the meaner sorts organize. Nopes play a cutthroat game and the losers probably end up working… elsewhere.

Nice! is a sweet being, the yes-party of idea generation. Nice!s are at their best when they can subtly repeat everyone else’s ideas, desperately hoping to contribute but with an existential fear of rejection. I like to put Nice!s on the spot but that’s probably just a warped thrill. They are generally excellent at participating but their fear of failure keeps them from saying what they really think. Given permission and encouragement, they can easily become WTF?!ers (but in a totally good way).

Ahh, the WTF?!ers. The ones who don’t give a damn. The ones who throw around ideas with nary a care about whether they’re good or bad or even possible –

WTF?!ers often get accused of being angry and anti-establishment. This is often because they are angry at the establishment.

What’s even more astounding is that WTF?!ers are also usually swimming in creativity, despite the most unlikely, ridiculous or just plain awful ideas that they toss around. I know this to be true because they are my people. A group of WTF?!ers will get you to a better idea, faster, and would rather use their eyeball as a dartboard than censor their ideas or judge the whoppers that you throw out.

This kind of rock star realizes that inspiration can strike from any direction, and good ideas are one in one hundred. It’s best to generate as many ideas as possible out of your head before trying to figure out which ones are good – or even possible! If you’re censoring your thoughts, you’re really just making it harder for yourself. Radical suggestions will not only set a benchmark for other ideas, but also can be powerful triggers for something completely new – and brilliant.

So before you try to figure out which idea is good, first get them all down. Generate as many different possibilities as you can, tethered with one inquiry. Build on notions and play things out, even when it seems silly. Don’t hold back, and don’t judge.

Once you’ve exhausted your attention to ideas, then and ONLY then should you whittle the choices down.

Brainstorming with people that are used to filtering their ideas requires a certain boldness, but once you’ve realized that this is the most reliable way to find the best ideas, you’ll soon become like me, prefacing your whacky contributions with the disclaimer I’m just putting things out there! Take it or leave it…

And this, my friends, is failing in real time. If you accept that an idea doesn’t have to be good before it leaves your lips, you’ll be completely unphased about throwing around really bad/silly/stupid ideas of your own. You’ll know the odds are in your favour.

Know when to let go.

Ideas should be tried on, not enforced – and definitely not coddled. Alas, we tend towards coddling no matter how impractical. Darling ideas charm our egos and our self-worth and our notion of where we sit in the pecking order. We think our ideas are cute or funny or profound or deep or relate to the universe’s best inside joke.

They’re precious.

And so, the first thing you must do when you’re stuck with a prized idea is: Question your precious little babies. This is because your most favourite and bestest idea is emotional because creativity is passionate and beauty is subjective and plus – endorphins! happened and basically, if you find yourself protecting one particular idea over all the others it’s probably because it’s weak. Just saying.

The easiest way to determine if your sweet little precious baby idea is actually good is, whenever you can, get feedback. Important note: THIS FEEDBACK IS NOT MEANT TO BE THE LAST WORD. You can disagree. You can decide not to follow the feedback. But you should at, the very least, consider it.

And hey, if the replies you get are like, “Girl, that part is the BEST EVER”, or “Wow, how are you not in charge of everything right now?” or “Can I buy this online?” then you’re golden.

But if the response is “Oh I didn’t get it at first glance,” or “What did Bob say?” or “Maybe it’s just not my thing” then you’re probably protecting the wrong precious little baby.

And you have to let that little darling go (sniff).

A few years ago my team-mate and I were responsible for injecting a ton of fun into what was usually a dull meeting event and we decided to run with a rousing game of Family Feud. Delighted with our idea, we found a pre-loaded PowerPoint that would simulate the game – buzzers and all. All we had to do was inject witty questions and answers – which we had a good deal of fun creating.

The game was our secret sauce and so we pushed for more time to play. By the day of the event we had edited and practiced and even though we hadn’t tried it out with anyone but ourselves we were excited to see the reactions of the participants. So! Much! Fun!

Of course it was a total flop. The questions were too specific and the game play wasn’t balanced and the buzzers had a weird lag time which only added an element of delayed response. Not a great combo for a trigger quiz.

I was convinced that I could come up with better questions and work through the kinks but my team-mate – I’ll call him Ricky – gently suggested I had to let my darling go. It just wasn’t working.

It’s hard. And it hurts. But if you’re going to become efficient at failure, you can’t hold onto things that aren’t working, no matter how precious they are.

Talk about it.

OMG please learn to talk about your failures in life. Be willing to jump on life’s stage to poke fun at your mishaps and admit your missteps and regale your grand failures with the aplomb they deserve.

I think this is a good time to point out that authenticity counts.

A couple of years ago my design team facilitated an event and the client asked for advice on how to open the day. They wanted to come across as humble and let the room know that they were in a safe space for sharing and growth.

Let them know your biggest fail, we encouraged, so that they know that trying and failing is better than not trying at all.

So, inspired to lead the charge and motivate his team to fail efficiently whenever possible, this fearless leader vulnerably shared that pivotal moment when they failed to hand in a college paper on time.

I kid you not.

In a twenty-year career spanning at least two industries, failed to hand in a college paper on time was as deep as this person could get. It was pathetic and everyone knew it. This leader may have thought that their admission of failure resonated with the youngsters in the crowd – of which, admittedly, there were many – but it rang so unauthentic that they would have had better odds convincing the room that they were David Bowie's twin than they did convincing anyone that they had risen from failure.

Be authentic about your failures. Share your stories with your fans and your rivals. Only the timid conceal their failure for fear of repercussion; it’s the bold that admit their failure with the confidence of gained understanding. That’s as simple as learning from mistakes, which – I hope! – can be swiftly categorized as strong performance. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather explore a person’s capacity to learn than their demonstration of perfection. Learning from failure contributes to awareness. I think each of us should have a failure story.

Your failure story should make you feel a little exposed and I understand it can be … unnerving… to feel that way. But a culture of radical candor isn’t created by hiding behind false pretenses. It might be tempting to use “I’m a perfectionist!” or “Too loyal!” or “Workaholic!” as your failure story but you’re not fooling anyone.

Every failure is a life lesson. Failures are stepping stones to wisdom; after all, rock stars don’t go flailing about on how they got it all right – they rock about what they got wrong. They use their mistakes, missteps and total bombs to inform their epic wins and once you understand the impeccable value of that you’ll start looking for your own ways to identify those failures faster, and for more opportunities to demonstrate your gained understanding.

You’ll proudly reveal those wisdom scars.

Like a rock star.

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