As I talk with people across a range of organisations about innovation and disruption, a common theme emerges – that of how we need to be able to become more accepting of failure. Failure is how we learn. We need to fail fast and fail often.
It strikes me that, whilst the sentiment is worthy, there is a crucial semantic issue with the concept of embracing failure – and that is that “failure” is such a negatively-loaded word.
Over my career I’ve often found myself trying to explain the power of connotation within the language we use, and it’s often fallen on deaf ears with people working in the technology sector who see it is unnecessarily “soft”. But the language that we choose to use has a massive impact on our ability to get things done.
For example, the current independence campaign in Scotland has thrown up the issue of how the “no” campaign is burdened with a negative outlook because it’s supporting the concept of “no”. Most of the “no” campaign’s messages seems to have focused on what Scots will lose from exiting The Union, rather than the positives of staying part of the UK.
The framing effects that language has on our behaviours can be profound. For example, experiments in the late 1990s showed how when a test was framed as one of “sporting intelligence”, white participants performed significantly better than black, and the inverse was true when framed as of “natural sporting ability”. The actual tests were identical, but the connotations of language reinforced stereotypes held by participants.
The world of business is seemingly obsessed with regarding everything as a series of solvable puzzles, when the reality is that we are faced with unknown mysteries much of the time. This further complicates the use of “failure” as a term because it’s perpetuating a myth that complicated things in life are actually simple, and all we need to do is find the right answer.
In this context, much as we might talk about making “failure” positive, it’s such a loaded term, I don’t know that it will ever be possible. Rather than to try and change our cultural perceptions of the word, better surely to change the words used?
So how about changing our references. No longer “Success” or “Failure”, but to draw from scientific method and talk about ideas that are proven or disproven?
I have an idea that, for example, banning of the term “failure” might be a good one. The only way in which I can find out is to try it out. When I try it out, the idea may be proven or disproven. If it’s proven, I can build upon it, if disproven then it’s time to have another idea.
Whilst “disproven” might still be a negative term, it’s not nearly as culturally loaded a word as “failed”. And that might make it much less scary for people to innovate and experiment.