The year: 2009.
The place: Ames Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel, Mountain View, CA.
The test: an enormous parachute, 51 feet in diameter, capable of withstanding 65,000 lb of force, and built to help land the Mars Curiosity Rover onto the surface of the red planet.
Before testing, the engineers were confident that this highly engineered piece of fabric would pass tests without a hitch. And the first test seemed to indicate the chute was perfect. But repetition is key to experimental science; the second test was not so ideal. It was what is classified as a “catastrophic failure.”
This could have been the end of the entire mission. But the scientists at Ames Research Center didn’t give up; with an armada of cameras, they looked to capture another failure in high definition to determine what was really going on when the parachute was shredded to pieces.
The problem was, they couldn’t get it to fail again. That was worse than the original failure because they needed to know why the chute had failed. And they needed to know “on the ground,” before the craft got anywhere near a launchpad.
After several more attempts at failure, the team finally sees another catastrophic failure of the parachute, this time, captured in HD. In this documentary by NOVA, the engineers cheer at the sight of the tattered chute because they were able to collect the data and really understand why it had failed. (Spoiler: it had to do with the fact that the wind tunnel placed the parachute perpendicular to gravity.)
This Isn’t Just a Story for Engineers
Why am I telling you a story about NASA engineers, let alone a failure story about NASA engineers?
Because these are some of the most brilliant minds in the world and they know the importance of failure. And it’s something marketers can learn from. Engineers on projects want their projects to “fail on the ground” so that they can either fix what needs fixing before the launch or so they don’t waste resources on a doomed endeavor.
To scientists, failure is not a dreaded concept. In fact, embracing failure can be critical to success.
In companies where innovation is the name of the game, this can be especially important. At X, formerly known as Google X, their business is innovation. X explores technologies as wide-ranging as utensils that cancel the tremors from Parkinson’s to balloons that will carry internet to the rural Outback. X is a company that demands crazy ideas. But it’s still a company, so the ideas they invest in must be worthwhile.
This is where failure comes into play.
Astro Teller, CEO at X, talks about how they celebrate failure in much the same way as the engineers at NASA.
Discovering a major flaw in a project doesn’t always mean that it ends the project. Sometimes it actually gets us onto a more productive path. – Astro Teller, CEO @ X
Having a critical eye and finding where a project has a crucial flaw early in the process creates a more efficient procedure in the long run. The final result will be a stronger and safer product.
Embracing failure and fostering a company environment where employees feel safe to fail and speak out about flaws in projects is vital to a company that thrives on innovation. As a marketer, that begins with knowing what kinds of failure you have—and what kind of failure you want to have.
Different Types of Failure
In an article for Harvard Business Review, Amy Edmonson, Professor at Harvard Business School, talks about creating an environment where employees can feel comfortable talking about mistakes and failures. She largely calls on executives to create organizational cultures that stop playing what she calls, “The Blame Game.”
Leaders must recognize that there are different kinds of failure—a spectrum, in fact—and some of these failures may not be worthy of punishment. “In fact,” writes Prof Edmonson, “a failure resulting from thoughtful experimentation that generates valuable information may actually be praiseworthy.” Notice the echo of Astro Teller’s mentality regarding failure.
In this spectrum, we see some acts that are clearly blameworthy: deliberate deviance or lack of effort, for example. These are largely due to a shortcoming in the person who enacted the failure and could have been avoided in the first place.
These “bad” types of failure can be remedied by using checklists or encouraging quick remedies to small mistakes.
The failures associated with the complexity of a situation are more complicated when it comes to finding who to blame or even if someone should be blamed. These mistakes are often associated with unavoidable errors, inherent to the work or the organization. Prof. Edmonson gives the examples of triaging patients in an emergency room or managing a fast-growing startup. She writes, “To consider [these failures] bad is not just a misunderstanding of how complex systems work; it is counterproductive.”
These types of failures can be mitigated by implementing best practices and quickly identifying and correcting small mistakes before they build up.
Now for the fun kind of failures, what’s termed an intelligent failure. This type might be considered “good” because an intelligent failure occurs when you’re on the forefront of the market. Even in the failure of a project, the act of failing provides “valuable new knowledge.” These are the types of failures mentioned earlier that were encouraged by NASA and X. Prof. Edmonson writes, “At the frontier, the right kind of experimentation produces good failures quickly.”
But in order for companies to appropriately assess what kinds of failures are occurring in their organizations, there must be a culture in which employees feel safe to talk about failure. In your marketing organization, metrics meetings cannot simply be a celebration of the good—you must evaluate and, more importantly, establish action plans and learnings to reduce the likelihood of failure in the future.
Talk about Failure
Talking about failure is vital to fostering a work environment where innovation can flourish and catastrophes can be avoided when it counts. Marketing is fundamentally creative, and without a safe space to take risks, campaigns and content are simply regurgitated copies of what is tried and true—which usually is pretty stale, too.
We all know how painful it can be to admit our failures. The trepidation and shame associated with confessing when we’ve made mistakes is behind so many small- and large-scale catastrophes. Often, these could have been avoided if the person at fault had simply spoken up earlier. Even worse, they’ve robbed others of the knowledge to prevent the mistake from happening again.
We have to come to a new understanding of talking about failure. There are numerous benefits to being open and owning the mistakes we’ve made. Alison Wood Brooks, also from Harvard Business school, found that admitting failure promotes a sense of “benign envy” in those around you. It humanizes you and makes you more approachable. And surprisingly, owning your failures can make you seem more reliable.
Prof. Edmonson strongly advocates that producing such a safe environment must come from leadership. She provides five key actions that a leader can practice to help create a safe company culture:
- Accurately frame the work and what kinds of failures can be expected to occur
- Reward rather than punish those who bring failures to everyone’s attention
- Be open about where limits are and when you need help, encouraging others to do the same
- Ask for observations and ideas and foster experimentation
- Clarify what acts truly are blameworthy and the associated punishments
Taking steps like these can help to foster more of the innovative kinds of failure and minimize the preventable “bad” kinds of failure.
An important caveat to remember (usually the only element we think of) with even the intelligent failure is that it has consequences.
In her TED talk on failure, Leticia Gasca, co-founder of the movement F*ckup Nights and Executive Director for the Failure Institute, relates a story of one of her first business failures. (Note: I’ve censored her organization name—if there’s any confusion, please see her website for a delightfully authentic view on failure.) Years ago, she started a business to sell the art of indigenous women. When the business went under, it meant lost income for a community that truly needed it.
While innovation thrives on an openness to failure, in businesses where real people rely on the success of a venture, it’s important to understand the risks associated with a potential failure.
And this comes from being able to communicate failure on a broader stage. Leticia says of that first failed venture, “In the end, we had to close the business, and that broke my heart. I started everything to create a positive impact on the life of the artisans. And I felt that I have done the opposite. I felt so guilty that I decided to hide this failure from my conversations and my resume for years. I didn’t know other failed entrepreneurs, and I thought I was the only loser in the world.”
But when she began to share her story, she found that others had also failed, and it was the ability to learn from those failures that helped propel their future businesses and the businesses of others who heard the stories. This is what launched the Failure Institute, an organization aimed at researching failures in business to help prevent those same failures from occurring again.
Of course, these learnings are framed from a marketing perspective, but the most important lesson is that failure is something we must accept in all areas of our lives—professional and otherwise. So, let’s review:
Fail early in the process to discover potentially disastrous outcomes.
Fail openly to provide others with the opportunities to learn and be more efficient moving forward.
Fail mindfully to mitigate the widespread repercussions of the flop.
Failure is not inherently bad. There are a variety of benefits to failing, including breaking away from the competition, finding a small flaw before it’s too costly, and even fostering healthy work relationships when we can talk openly about failures.