Failing: A New Paradigm

30 October 2012 | By Andrea

We live in a culture that abhors failure – being (or doing) wrong is traditionally associated with ignorance, even moral degeneracy. ‘Error’ is signified as one of our gravest intellectual failings.

In our performance- and success-driven culture, you’d then be surprised to encounter heartfelt praise of failure. And this is especially true in the context of business – where failure signals lack of experience/expertise and is, at best, associated with start-up ‘immaturity’.

Things, however, are rapidly changing. Last May’s UK edition of Wired magazine featured a cover article on ‘How failure breeds success’ and a few books have recently come out covering this very subject from a new perspective – from Kathryn Schulz’s “Being Wrong” to “Adapt: Why success always starts with failure” by UK economist Tim Harford to “The Queer Art of Failure” by Judith Halberstam.

Most of these books and articles provide new insight into what has been traditionally considered a personal and professional taboo – failing. There seems to be increasing consensus (at least on paper) that business breakthroughs highly depend on failure and the most innovative companies are actually those that leverage their mistakes and learn from them.

However when it comes to assessing the real ‘value of failure’ the material differs quite significantly; most of it is concerned with recognising failure in order to ‘control’ it and thus minimise it – under the ‘fail fast, fail cheap’ business mantra. Focusing on potential flaws, the main argument suggests, makes failure happen earlier. This kind of ‘failure evangelism’, in other words, frames failure simply as an inevitable prerequisite for success (which remains in fact the main point of reference).

Interestingly, however, there is an emergent appreciation of the ‘value of failure’ above and beyond the dominant ‘success’ paradigm. This new strand of thinking is based on the recognition that ‘wrongness’ (in its own right) is vital to our full development as human beings – with new research pointing out that we actually learn more from our mistakes than from our successes.

In this new context, failing is critical to the development of our ability to adapt to a constantly changing environment and ultimately develop sound and innovative coping strategies. Progress is ultimately dependent on fallibility; it thrives on it. Embracing fallibility is the route to thinking more freely and daringly.

In the corporate context, it is about fostering ground-breaking, disruptive innovations through unconventional, ‘lateral’ thinking and ‘trial and error’. That is why some companies have even started designing new ways to measure performance that balance “accountability” (the dominant paradigm of a performance- and success-driven culture) with the freedom to make mistakes (the core trait of a new, emergent “learning culture”, as Tim Harford observes).

Companies like Google are embedding failure and risk in their practices through constant experimentation (e.g. by allowing its engineers to spend 20% of their time to explore their own projects) and through ‘trial and error’ processes (e.g. through releasing unfinished “beta” products).

Unilever has recently announced that it is to undertake a fundamental change in approach to its marketing through the implementation of a fresh “More magic, less logic” company philosophy to reward marketers who are prepared to take risks and back daring, bold – but also potentially flawed – ideas. This new approach, explains Marc Mathieu, Unilever’s senior vice-president of marketing would “enable marketers to fail”, where previously they have been scared to do so but also losing, at the same time, some of the creative spark that leads to great ideas.

Critically, from a semiotic perspective, embracing failure through (bottom up) ‘experimentation’ – vs. minimising it through ‘top-down control’ – is not only a novel paradigm for strategic innovation. Brands that openly embrace failure effectively signify their human and empathetic dimension – thus connecting more powerfully with all of us, fallible consumers.



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