How to Deal with Failure in Innovation




Post written by Haley Pysick


In a corporate-driven society, failure of any kind is a threat. It’s not just a threat to the bottom-line, but also to the structure, reputation, and functioning of the company. To prevent deviation from management’s imposed goals, employees are encouraged to “play it safe” through the implementation of regulations, quotas and penalties.

Imagination and creativity are simply too risky to incorporate into the company’s model. However, in attempting to prevent failure, companies stifle innovation that can actually be beneficial to its future. In the healthcare field, innovation is at a greater risk of being suppressed due to obstacles like HIPPA and health insurance. Innovation is particularly crucial in healthcare to ensure the field is continuously meeting the needs of patients.

At the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation (CFI), a dynamic model was established to ensure that innovation - and all of its components – could be executed. In the CFI workspace, failure is not seen as a threat. Rather, it is seen as a crucial step in the innovation process.

Of course it would be wonderful if every idea worked the first time (Thomas Edison likely would have appreciated skipping the first 2,000 attempts at the lightbulb and being successful on the first try). But often, failure results in a learning experience that can be carried on and applied to other ventures.

In innovation, faults made can include anything from small discrepancies in communication to ineffective team dynamics to a whole idea ultimately deemed infeasible. Having come to CFI already with a human-centered design background, CFI service designer Rose Anderson has been in-tune with the process of innovation for quite some time.

To actively learn from flaws, Rose stresses the importance of reflecting on the processes in an objective way. This means understanding that your ideas are not a personal reflection of yourself. By viewing it from this perspective, it is easier to understand and embrace other people’s assessments or critiques of your idea(s) to improve both the process and the end product.

Plus, if the project does end in failure, you and your group are largely spared from emotional tensions and can instead focus on learning why the project ended in failure.

Rose says that after working in this type of environment for a while, it becomes “second nature” to continuously reanalyze the design process using lessons learned from past failures.

Another part of failure in innovation involves risk taking. In order to take risks, there has to be an acceptance that the projects or ideas may completely miss the mark and fall flat. According to CFI project manager Stephanie Ims, one way to handle risk is to “explore the unknown” of new projects. This includes determining the worst possible outcomes, identifying potential problems/obstacles, etc.

Exploring the unknown of new projects is not only useful for avoiding problems, but also to prepare the team for the possibility of undesired outcomes. That way, if a plan does end up failing, the team has the preparation and resilience to bounce back and reconfigure the design. Stephanie also brings up the importance of having the right dynamic in the workplace to handle taking risks (and the failures that may result).

She mentions that there is a strong, collective desire to help improve the lives of patients among every area of Mayo Clinic. Because of that, innovation is both understood and encouraged throughout the system. And because innovation and risks are so closely tied together, risk is not a factor that Mayo Clinic shies away from.

The motto at CFI, “Think big, start small, move fast,” incorporates strategies used when their teams take risks.

Service designer Rose claims that the “move fast” part of the motto is especially important to reduce “sunk effort.” This means that it is better to spend only the necessary time needed to make the core product. That way if the project does end in failure, the project can progress forward and enter the redesign phase right away. This model leaves room to take chances, experience failures, and continue the learning process to make a better end result.

While innovation has a connotation of success and progression, underneath resides a continuum of letdowns, faults, and flaws. Even though failure may seem like taking steps backwards, the lessons and knowledge you gain from failure can be even more beneficial in the long run than having immediate success.

Failure is an intimidating part of the design process. But once it is embraced, it open doors to more innovated and dynamic ideas and designs.



Haley Pysick is currently a student at the University of Minnesota Rochester, and an contributing Intern Writer for the Center for Innovation.

Haley Pysick is currently a student at the
University of Minnesota Rochester, and an
contributing Intern Writer for the Center
for Innovation.















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