Design & Failure

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 I was once slated to give a presentation at CHI Camp titled “A complete Failure’s Guide to getting UX Buy-in” Even though I never gave that presentation the importance of failure and what I can learn from it stayed with me.

I have always been a strong advocate of learning from failure. It is one of the most powerful tools I know at motivating people and changing minds, attitudes and behaviors. I can say that unabashed now but it is often not easy to see the learning opportunities when sitting among the rubble of an especially large failure.

I’ve recently been reading a few books by Henry Petroski who has done extensive study about failure in design & engineering.  One book is very interesting:

Success Through Failure – The Paradox of Design

This book chronicles examples of failure and the significance those failures play within a domain.  He cites the the sinking of the Titanic or the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge as exceptional teaching tools in the ship building and civil engineering professions.  Each profession has learned to design against the types of failure presented in each catastrophe respectively. Failure allows for the study of known contributing factors that lead to the failure.  Hmm sounds very logical.  A sensible engineering thing to do.  But the human cost of these “learning” events is very high.

I have also recently read:

Why do People and Organizations Produce the Opposite of What they Intend? by Roger Martin, et al commissioned by the Walkerton Water Enquiry.

Flawed Advice and the Management Trap: How Managers Can Know When They’re Getting Good Advice and When They’re Not - Chris Argyris

It seems there are some very significant characteristics that are built into people and companies that make them failure averse. A bit of a paradox really.  Failure is great motivator and an exceptional teacher (if  expensive at times) – but everyone seems to do everything they can to try to avoid failure.  As Roger Martin points out in his article most often defensive personal values are re-enforced through corporate evaluation mechanisms:

  • winning
  • staying in control
  • avoiding embarrassment

Defensive behaviors drive us all toward unwanted outcomes.  Research by Chris Argyris indicates that how an organization supports or prevents defensive behaviors ultimately can decide an outcome.

Since I am primarily focused on the domain of design I thought I would provide my own observations about failure and what process, communication and cultural changes can be used to create a safe failure environment.

1) Create a safe failure culture and communication

Ensure opportunities for learning are fused into every step of a design process. Use design reviews, critique, and evaluations as learning opportunities for all individuals involved in a design. Ensure each designer is aware and comfortable with their own scope of responsibility and never do anything to diminish that responsibility since lack of trust and diminished self-esteem will trigger defensive behaviors. Never remove anyone one from a design project due to perceived failure, or lack of progress. Safe failure means there cannot be a negative consequence or embarrassment for a poor outcome – only a learning opportunity.

2) Build a  new vocabulary around failure

To know how to handle failure a new set of questions must govern communication.  Instead of ‘how did this happen’ new questions include:

  • what can we learn from this?
  • how can this outcome be used to our advantage?

3) A process to fail early

It is never too early to start reviewing and evaluating a design. Ideas are fresh and designers have not become fixated on what they feel to be the best approach (what I call designer motherhood). Early failure allows for more possibilities to be explored.  When little effort has gone into fleshing out a design a designer does not have much at stake. Failure is easier to accept.

  • with no negative consequences for failure – exploration is open and continuous

4) A process to fail often

By making failure occur earlier with few consequences except learning, designers will explore, innovate and present concepts that might have never been considered.  This will increase the rate of failure but also the opportunity for great success.

  • all avenues are explored not just the safe, known routes

While it may not be possible to eliminate defensive behaviors entirely from a design team. I believe my suggestions go a long way to reducing the embarrassment and stigma associated with failure, thereby creating opportunities for accelerated innovation.