While we thrive in the golden age of technology, where breakthroughs are being made across all sectors, John Galpin, Co-Founder, Design by Structure, urges us to take a moment to consider the failure behind the success that have driven such innovation.
It’s been an incredible 12-18 months for the tech sector with exponential growth. The UK tech VC investment hit a record high of US$15bn in 2020 despite the challenges of the pandemic, which has fast-tracked the uptake of tech in both our personal and professional lives – there’s an app for everything. Its widely debated whether we have or have not entered a golden age of technology; many experts believe it is down to geographical innovation as to which point in the age individual nations are at. There’s no doubt; however that technology is remaking the economy, its role during the pandemic is evidence of that.
Then, echoing our love for space in the 60s, there are the advancements of space tech and the space race 2.0 by a handful of billionaires looking to democratise space travel. Within days of each other, Bezos and Branson have both successfully gone into orbit this summer. It appears that we are innovating and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible again. Like his tech peers, Elon Musk is also determined to buck the trend for zero innovation in space travel. He believes we need to act ‘with extreme urgency’ when it comes to innovating the sector.
While we laud technology’s 2020/21 success stories and live-stream the low orbit flights, when it comes to tech developments, there is something else we are witnessing: the joy of failure. There has been a shift in mindset away from the harmful negative connotations of failure to something accepting and even celebratory. In Western Europe, people tended to find failure difficult to accept and even more so to share or talk about. Whereas in the US, it’s a badge of honour; normally, it’s expected to have several failures before you make it, and people are more open about this than ever. The idea of ‘move/fail fast and break things’ (devised by Zuckerberg) recognises that failure is also a part of the journey to success.
What we have witnessed is that failure has undergone a rebranding and repositioning process.
The repositioning of failure
“If things are not failing, you are not innovating.”Elon Musk
Failure has leagues of followers, fans, and devoted communities online, where people share their successes and failures with an equal sense of pride. Failing is about learning too and sharing those leanings so everyone can innovate. Space X’s Starship launch failures were live-streamed as they tested, learned and iterated as part of its innovation process. Musk understands the need to work at pace to maintain innovation, that failing faster is better in the long game, better for the entrepreneurs and investors alike. Failure makes us ask, can it work, can it scale?
What’s this shift about?
Changes to the perception of failure:
- The heroes of failure – the people who are prepared to fail.
- Sharing failure – people who share failure.
- ‘The mindset leveller’ – If you don’t fail you don’t learn.
1. The heroes of failure
If we look at some of our biggest tech success stories, we uncover heroes of failure. Tech titans such as Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are part of this positive shift in attitude to failure. They are on record discussing the failures that helped them achieve greatness.
But the shift is bigger than just the big players, it’s embraced by the small and big players alike. Where did it start? This openness and sharing mindset is relatively new. In a post-WW2 world shrouded in secrecy, iron curtains and walls, the 90s generation wanted to open barriers and tear down borders in the interest of transparency and growth, which was expedited by mobile phone technology and the arrival of the internet.
The advent of social media in the 00s said sharing was good. And so, the heroes of failure were born and given a platform to tackle the negativity aimed at tech geeks and stargazers, who embraced the tech to share the failures and the journeys that allowed them to succeed. In a refreshing change, where once there were coverups, now failure is a TedTalk playlist.
But social isn’t just for the big players to discuss their failures. It’s where the nerds and geeks coalesced, and they brought tech failures to a whole new level: FailArmy has 15M YouTube subscribers with a dedicated channel to tech fails.
‘When we are developing a new product or service or experimenting in some way,Jeff Bezos
and it doesn’t work, that’s okay. That’s great failure.’
2. Sharing the journey
Technology itself became the facilitator of failure shares. Sites such as YouTube allowed people to film themselves trying out home developed tech, which invariably leads to smashing, crashing, and blowing stuff up. Importantly it has allowed communities to build a cultural movement of sharing the good, the bad and the ugly of innovation. The proliferation of new channels from 2005, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tik Tock etc., allowed these communities to reach and build new audiences, launching the ‘follower’ era and posting a thumbs up for failure.
Social media has created some tech failure stars, such as Simone Giertz who is famous for being the ‘Queen of Shitty Robots’. Giertz has a league of devoted fans and followers, has done TV appearances and has recently done a successful TedTalk about celebrating failure.
Similarly, there is a whole army of YouTubers and other channels following the innovation in the Space industry, with live streams of test flights, launch infrastructure construction and daily general progress updates. People delight in the crashes and burns (unmanned) as much as successful flights.
3.The shift in mindset
The adage, ‘if at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again’, couldn’t be truer in the sense that not everyone gets it right the first time. The difference is that you hear about this more now than ever before, and not in a derisory way, but because people recognise that it is part of the entrepreneurial journey – some ideas fly, others don’t. And there are many reasons why things don’t succeed – timing, being best not first, or not letting perfection be the enemy of progress and so on. For every success story, there are 80% of businesses that we never hear about and that fail in the first year. This is increasingly becoming the natural order of things. But the flip side is that it is better to try something and fail fast rather than continue blindly. The agility of fail-fast innovation, while counter-intuitive sounding, helps people find success. It’s also about knowing when to stop, Sir James Dyson’s ambition of building the next-gen electric car (with £2bn planned investment) bailed after £500mn because it wasn’t going to be ‘commercially viable’. However, from the ashes of his failure has risen advancements in car battery technology.
The combination of the heroes of failure and the openness and transparency of sharing their stories are behind the shift to accepting failure as part of the road to success. Seeing others, both big and small players from industry and back gardens alike, try and fail has opened the door for acceptance.
“It’s fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.”Bill Gates
The three points discussed come back to one thing, Technology. It’s not failure that has changed, but how we perceive and respond to it which has. It is the normalcy and accepted expectations that a certain number of failures will take place before the eureka moment. The thing about tech is that sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. And that’s fine.
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In 2021, the open attitudes to how we achieved success built-in with an expectation of failure is simply refreshing. And when someone such as British-American entrepreneur, Astro Teller, talks about the joy breaking things to foster an environment at X Laboratories (Google) where it is safe to fail, it helps take the pressure of someone who is starting out with just an idea. Knowing that there are platforms where you can share and discuss your ideas safely without judgement is a support system for innovation, because if you are afraid to fail, you may not try anything at all. Imagine living in that world. The message here is that it’s better to have tried and failed than to have never tried at all–celebrate your triumphs and your failures.