Friday, 28 January 2011

Failure is an Option

At the heart of every new idea, there’s always the sneaking suspicion that it might not work, that it might fail. But what if failure wasn’t something to fear?

An institute out of the Netherlands will feature what it calls “brilliant failures” in an effort to learn from past mistakes. The idea is that when failures are seen in a positive light—as learning tools—more people will accept the fact that not every idea will be successful and take the leap into innovation.

The institute is a project of Dialogues, an initiative of Dutch bank ABN-AMRO, with the mission to “stimulate entrepreneurial thinking and behavior by encouraging people to develop new ideas and enabling innovators to turn ideas into reality.”

The criteria for a brilliant failure is as follows:

  1. The innovator strives with good intentions (i.e. not at the expense of others or society at large) to achieve their goal.
  2. The innovator does all they can to avoid unnecessary errors: failure through poor preparation or silly mistakes is not a brilliant failure!
  3. The innovator does not achieve their original goal; if the actual result was not intended, but has value for the individual or society then we can officially classify it as a brilliant failure!
  4. The innovator learnt something from their failure; even if they did not learn what they intended they learnt what not to do; above all their experiences, courage and perseverance may well inspire others.

The first example given on the site is that of Columbus discovering America.

  1. Columbus’s goal was to find a faster trade route to the Far East.
  2. The Italian explorer left nothing to chance. He organized—finally in Spain—sponsorship for his voyage and made sure he had the best ships and crew available at that time.
  3. Columbus’s mission was essentially a failure; he did not achieve his original goal of making the Far East markets more accessible. Instead of reaching the Far East he discovered an unknown continent.
  4. The ‘discovery’ of America was not only a fascinating experience for Columbus, but also inspired countless others.

While the website is still relatively bare, the current failures include an SMS-based awareness program and micro-credit project. Text to Change organized an SMS-based AIDS awareness quiz in Uganda. The organization thought they had every detail figured out until the Ugandan government gave them the text code 666—the devil. The Christian partners of the program wanted to pull the plug. At the last minute the code was changed.

A representative from Text To Change said, “No matter how well prepared you are, keep in mind that unexpected things can happen. We were so focused on all external factors that we forgot to check our own SMS code in advance. Never assume that you are in total control.”

The idea to remove the negative view of failure is an intriguing one. Failure is, unfortunately, an integral part to innovation. But if entrepreneurs start to think of failure as a necessary learning tool, mistakes might not be such a bad thing.

Heard of any mistakes that could be qualified as “brilliant failures”?

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