Issues with a Culture of Failure: Fail Small if You’re Big

One of the tenants of design thinking and entrepreneurship in general is failure. Stories about the value of failure and its distant cousin, pivoting, are ubiquitous among entrepreneurs. Many entrepreneurs succeeded after failure forced them to change a business model, product, or audience.

Fail fast and fail forward is a the kind of motto that many technology innovators and entrepreneurs use to embrace the culture of failure. Personally, I have no problem with organizations who build failure into their culture. In fact more organizations need to embrace the ability to try new things, fail, and move on. Mature or established organizations often forget the kinds of experimentation that got them to the maturity place they now call home.

But what happens in verticals where failure is not an option, to quote a famous movie phrase which derives from the NASA space program? There is a definite need for innovation in K-12 and Higher Education. Although technology has made some positive impact, these are still areas where disruption is necessary beyond incremental  initiatives like MOOCs and Standardized Testing.  To accomplish disruption by employing a culture of failure model, however, would be to impart failure into systems that support young children or young adults.

Disruption is hard in education. When I co-founded a digital media program at Lebanon Valley College in 2001 there was no script for how digital media programs should be crafted. We took a liberal arts approach and built a program that has been copied by many small schools across the region and country. But what sticks most with me is when an early student name Laurie came back after a few years and said “we were your guinea pigs…” She was aware and cognizant that she was one of the test subjects at the beginning. While we didn’t fail, at least epically, there were a lot of pivots in curriculum and ongoing changes that once would expect from a technology curriculum. These pivots were all accomplished in an established General Education model with rigorous approaches to new classes. Certainly, our program was more incremental than disruptive, although it has disruptive elements. Honestly, building anything disruptive involving students is negligent when you cannot assure some kind of outcome.

Consider failiure from the perspective of large organizations who operate in a regulated environment. I spent my early years working in Project Management and Technical Communication for nuclear power vendors. Here, innovation occurs in research labs and universities. It’s not that electric companies or plants cannot innovate. But their propensity to avoid failure is predictably connected to things like safety, recoverable costs, and environmental impact. Another great example is HighMark, the large Blue Cross/Blue Shield  insurance provider based in Pittsburgh, PA. It would be easy to assume that HighMark, one of the 10th largest health insurers in the country,  has the knowledge and resources to disrupt the healthcare insurance industry. But how exactly do they develop a culture of failure in order to disrupt? Healthcare is filled with legal pitfalls and government regulations that defy the ability to fail in projects that are anything larger than a small pilot program.

So maybe the culture of fail needs a reboot. Maybe large companies need to fail small. Failing small decreases risks to stakeholders. It limits the criticism from outside regulatory or connected stakeholders and produces a culture that allows employees participate in a culture of failure. I’m not sure it’s enough. Companies have been running pilot projects for years. It might take a completely new form of college like Minerva or Singularity to disrupt higher education. Maybe it takes a SpaceX or Mars One kind of projects to truly disrupt industries. But  some of us have fiduciary responsibilities to our stakeholders. They are real people with real outcomes. Sometimes epic failure is not an option.