Failing Forward: Embracing Failure In Our Work

A side profile in front of a clock.

No matter how many times failure comes knocking at your door, it can feel like a stranger you don’t want to welcome in. Failure looks different for everyone, but the way we perceive it is often similar – a feeling of defeat after expending time and effort on a specific task. Although it sounds cliché, failure is a valuable learning tool. It presents an opportunity to put yourself out there and be vulnerable by attempting something for the first time. In fact, many organizations are beginning to adopt this practice of ‘failing forward’, a term coined by John C. Maxwell, as a mindset of separating mistakes from self-worth and intentionally stepping into unfamiliarity to seize more from life. At the Innovation Hub, failure has not only been welcomed but embraced in the work that we do. It is an essential part of solving complex problems to help us expand on our ideas and pivot towards the side of innovation. Much of our work won’t be where it is today without embracing failure.  

Design Thinking & Failure as Learning

Design thinking falls under the premise of failure. It is a creative approach utilizing a set of tools, from empathy, observation, and listening skills, to deeply understand the needs of a community. Failure is also about learning new things and challenging our perceptions. It’s one of many tools that we can choose from to learn from our experiences, and to also imagine new possibilities. 

“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

Thomas A. Edison

Using failure as a tool for success could feel frustrating at times, especially in spaces where it isn’t embraced. However, part of developing a solution to a complex problem involves trial and error, where honest feedback is used to spark new ideas and insights that can make a meaningful difference. This process creates tensions in our work that force us to address what is ‘failing’. It’s in these moments where we learn the most because we challenge one another to see things differently when unique perspectives are presented and listened to.

Acknowledging these moments of failure is part of the learning process. Having the space to experience discomfort – especially in a world that often focuses more on success – is very much needed. Ultimately, our goal is to deeply understand the needs that will benefit the community despite the number of iterations made – which is where ‘failing forward’ comes into play. 

How We Fail Forward

A magnifying glass with a question mark and a hand drawing it and a lightbulb drawn with another hand.

With each project, ‘failing forward’ challenges us to reflect and evolve in how we honour our process, student experiences, and vision for the UofT community. It’s been a part of our process since the beginning of the Innovation Hub, where we explored Celebrating Failure in 2016. Below are some ways we are currently ‘failing forward’ at the Innovation Hub:

Fostering trust  

  • Team-bonding exercises to get to know one another at the start of work-study terms 
  • Check-ins at the beginning of each team meeting  
  • Sharing half-baked ideas, by creating drafts, sketches, and multiple concepts, to fail small and fail fast  

Embracing vulnerability  

  • Naming times of tension or ‘failure’ in our process, and supporting dialogue with students on why this might be happening  
  • Sharing weekly team updates of lessons from failure and winning moments 
  • Acknowledging areas to improve and evolve based on what we’ve learned from our past failures 

Ideating Together  

  • Embracing collaborative brainstorming to bring in new perspectives and conversations such as storyboards, sketching sessions, or collaborative exercises 
  • Sharing new ideas by fostering open, supportive spaces that encourage curiosity  

These are just a few of many ways where failure can be reframed in spaces of work, academia, and community, so that it can become part of our evolution. This is particularly important in higher education, where failure is a reality faced by many students whether it’s an upcoming deadline, a bad grade, or assignment feedback. From a student standpoint, failure can often be perceived negatively, but in our workspace is something we encourage our team of students to embrace. By instilling these tools of ‘failing forward’ in our workspace, it allows us to be vulnerable enough to take a leap of faith in our ideas and unleash creativity, which is the recipe to almost every innovative idea. As we step into 2021, we challenge you to fall fearlessly in your next endeavor and to be open to ‘failing forward’ throughout the process – remember, the greatest success stories often begin with the greatest of failures.

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