Why failure can be the best platform for innovation

Why failure can be the best platform for innovation
The Guardian, by David Floyd

When it comes to social enterprises, failure can be a taboo subject but it can be a basis for innovative ideas

Failure is a taboo subject in the world of social enterprise. While many mainstream business people are happy to regale conferences and TV audiences with swashbuckling tales of their battles back from brink of disaster, social entrepreneurs traditionally find the subject much harder to talk about.

While Create are an honourable exception, it’s not unusual for high-profile social enterprises to emerge from nowhere, win some awards and/or big public contracts then go out of business never to be discussed in public again.

Martin Murphy, of Failure Consulting, suggests that social entrepreneurs’ reticence in talking about failure may be partly because each failure is seen as having wider implications: "The failure of a social enterprise becomes not just a failure of the particular business but a failure to prove the strongly held belief that there is a better way [of doing business]. Perhaps for the average social entrepreneur there’s just a little bit more at stake even than the success or failure of a business?"

One of the few leading social entrepreneurs to be consistently open about discussing failure is social entrepreneur, Dave Dawes, whose current businesses include Nurse First.

In a blogpost last year, Dawes explained the importance of using failure to drive innovation: "Nothing is ever achieved successfully on its first attempt so any attempt to try or learn anything new will involve some failures along the way. We need to reclaim the word and recognise its importance as a developmental step."

One socially enterprising organisation that’s actively embracing failure as a driver of innovation is Hub Ottawa, part of the global Hub network of co-working spaces that includes London-based Hubs in Islington, Kings Cross and Westminster.

Hub Ottawa celebrated its first year of operation by releasing an Impact + Failure report. The document is made up of two reports, Impact begins at the front, Failure at the back with the latter involving members of the hub team giving their assessment unsuccessful activities. These included ideas for getting Hub members to collaborate with each other and a model for developing their own micro communities. These failures are assessed based on their intended outcome and actual outcome, followed by suggestions for learning and the path forward.

Hub Ottawa’s executive director, Vinod Rajasekaran explains the thinking behind the failure report: "We want to foster a culture in which failure is accepted and celebrated in the not-for-profit and social enterprise sectors." He adds that: "We are proud to be one of only a handful of Canadian organisations publicly releasing a failure report – and the first in the global HUB network. Innovation requires experimentation and experiments can be unsuccessful. This report is part of our process of learning and innovating."

There is a clear difference between trying out new ideas and approaches that don’t work and the collapse of a business. It’s possible to go bust without testing out any innovative products, services or ideas, and it’s equally possibly to test out innovative products, services and ideas without going bust.

Martin Murphy, though, believes there are strong connections between failure, innovation and sustainability. He says: "When things fail we automatically look at ways in which we can improve what we are doing. The key to innovation or an innovative approach lies in the speedy recognition of failure and developing systems to report it, manage it and learn from it."

Learning from failure doesn’t just happen, though. Murphy explains: "This sounds simple but it involves a challenge to the prevailing culture of being reactive to failure. We need to become proactive. Organisations that learn to learn will develop the flexibility that increases their chances of becoming sustainable in the longer term. We need to implement a process for the management of failure. Do that and innovation may well take care of itself."