It's OK to FAIL: How can we celebrate failure as part of innovation?
By Ned Staebler
About six years ago, I moved from the private sector into "economic development," first for the State of Michigan
and for the last year at Wayne State University
. Since then, literally thousands of people have walked into my office, called on the phone, or emailed me with an idea for a new venture.
I’ve heard from people who wanted to commercialize new technology, start businesses, construct methods of transportation, make movies, raise investment funds, build stronger communities, educate workforces and occasionally, all of the above. I’ve flipped through more Powerpoint decks than you can count. I’ve seen flying cars, perpetual motion machines, and even a business plan written in crayon.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen some really promising ideas. But what do they all have in common? Most of them will fail.
Needless to say, at times it has been a frustrating process. But in many ways, it has made me incredibly optimistic. Don’t worry, I’m not going to go off on a “If at first you don’t succeed...” speech. I won’t tell you stories about how Henry Ford went broke before he hit it big or why I wouldn’t recommend using WD-37 to lubricate anything.
What’s exciting is that all of these people are DOING something. They aren’t working 9 to 5, punching a clock, and going home to watch American Idol. They don’t spend their time on a blog complaining about why everything isn’t better. They’re not pointing fingers and looking for someone to blame.
Nope. These folks are out trying to add value, generate opportunity, hire employees, build communities, develop talent, create wealth, and start something bigger than themselves. Yet, we know most of them will fail. So what to do?
Well, the obvious answer is to help them succeed. And while there are still pieces of the support ecosystem that are missing or inadequate, there are lots of people working on that part of the solution.
The less obvious answer is to celebrate their failures. Huh? Why would we want to do that? Because, entrepreneurship is a numbers game. It’s kind of like hockey. The more shots on goal you get, the more likely you are to score. Just like in hockey, you’d prefer to have "quality scoring chances," but every now and then Pavel Datsyuk banks one in off the goalie from behind the net. More people buzzing around the net, more people shooting the puck, more quality shots = more goals!
Similarly, more activity -- even if it doesn’t produce big wins itself -- is a good thing. The sense that "things are happening" is huge for a community. To keep the hockey analogy going, Tomas Holmstrom doesn’t score a ton of goals. But he causes havoc and confusion in front of opposing goalies. When he’s camped out in front and the little guys are cruising around with the puck, our odds of scoring go up immensely.
By celebrating failures rather than criticizing them, we encourage more people to try new things, learn from their mistakes, and try again. So, how do we turn failure into a badge of honor rather than a mark of shame? That's the hard part.
How about a “Where Are They Now?” segment in Model D
or other local publications? Maybe an "I Was This Close" Award for the most spectacular failure? What if there was an investment fund that only funded ventures (restaurants, shops, etcetera) of people who have failed at least once, with much of the investment criteria contingent upon them explaining what they learned from their first attempt?
OK, I'm no marketing guru; you guys are clearly much more creative than I. I see it in your awesome Powerpoints and your lousy business plans written in crayon. So, how do we turn failure into a good thing?
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Ned Staebler is the Vice President of Economic Development for Wayne State University. Portrait by Marvin Shaouni Photography.