Failure in Five

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Information about Failure in Five

Published on March 19, 2014

Author: MeaghanKennedy



A 5 minute presentation on the subject of failure and how it relates to design and innovation. Presented at the
Atlanta Chapter of the Industrial Design Society of America.
2.27.14 | Meaghan Kennedy | Orange Sparkle Ball | illustrations by Lori Bailey

Failure in Five presented at the Atlanta Chapter of the Industrial Design Society of America 2.27.14 Meaghan Kennedy Illustrations by Lori Bailey

I had a hard time sorting what I wanted to say about failure. I don't think much about it... It occurred to me that maybe the key to my talk was to examine why I don't think much about failure.

This is where a high school anecdote comes in... I won my high school's science award. I was quite a high school science student. (!) Regardless of my science prowess, I wasn't always successful. One day I walked into biology class and there was a surprise pop quiz. I didn't know anything on the quiz! The teacher, a friend of my mom's, handed back my graded paper with a pained look on his face.

The notebook paper had a giant F written in red across my incorrect answers. Even as a 14 year old, I was unconcerned. I had failed miserably. I took the quiz home to show my mom. She chuckled but didn't say much.

The next day I came downstairs and my Failure of a quiz had been framed and put on our TV in the living room.

It stayed there throughout my years in high school and into college. My framed Failure was always a point of confusion for my friends, especially when I explained that my mom had framed it. As I reflect now on my mom's behavior, I wonder if this was a purposeful lesson or just one of many examples of her irreverent sense of humor? Or maybe both? Regardless of whether it was deliberate or not, that mentality has served me well in life.

Because I don't dwell on my failures, I don't take on failure as part of my identity. If something I do doesn't turn out as I had hoped, I try something different. There are many of examples in history of people who tried a bunch of things before being successful. Were these people failures until they were successes? If these people had been stifled by failure, we wouldn't have …

the theory of relativity… Einstein was a dismal failure in school.

the light bulb, Thomas Edison tried hundreds of bulbs before getting one to light.

or a bucket of KFC chicken! Colonel Sanders bounced from career to career before finding success franchising his chicken concept.

Since my pop quiz Failure, I have failed many times. As I was thinking about this presentation, I wanted to focus on design failures. When do we, as a design company, fail? I thought about projects where we failed so that tonight we could dissect them and learn our lessons of failure. However, I kept stumbling over which projects I would define as failures... When I started to think about our project failures, I sometimes got to ones where we were pleased with our solution but the client wasn't. Or worse yet, the client was pleased, and we hated the solution. Which of those are failures?

Maybe it's the consumer who defines failure?

7Eleven is currently doing a stuffed Dorrito test in its stores. If consumers love stuffed Dorritos, they could be successful for both Dorritos and 7Eleven. However, in terms of food I’d like to eat, they are a horrifying failure! My point here is that failure isn't really so black and white.

This idea of a consumer test is big right now in business innovation. Innovation thinking is all about a "fail fast" mentality. In other words, get products into consumer tests quickly to see if consumers like them... if they will fail or succeed.

In this scenario, failure is just a data point in the overall innovation process. If the process is successful, things will fail.

So maybe this innovation paradigm is actually just a metaphor for life. Failure is a part of the process. It doesn't define you. So... How were you taught to think about failure?

Does failure mean that you lost? Is success a win? If you didn't have my irreverent mom, you might have been taught to avoid failure at all costs. That's stifling. People, and companies, spend so much time trying to avoid failure, that they become immobilized and forget to try new things.

My feeling about failure is that it is just part of a vast range of life experiences. I have great respect for people who are brave enough to try things, even if it means they might fail.

So, I think the reason I had trouble sorting what to say about failure is that I think bravery is the important concept here, not failure.

thank you

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