One key to innovation: Establish a culture of smart failure

African American student swabbing a petri dish

“If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.”  Thomas Watson Jr.

I’ve just come from the SimplifiED 2015 conference.  It was “TED-esque” with 30 minute talks followed by questions and conversation.  The conference, created by Kivuto, was designed to speak about strategic and effective Ed Tech.  From talks on disruptive innovation from colleagues of Clayton Christensen (Innovator’s Dilemma) to successful education entrepreneurs to talks about how technology can and should be rolled out, the one day conference was a confluence of strategy and ideas in the middle of the UCLA campus.  

But as always happens, a few important threads emerged – threads that should continue long after the conference.  One of those threads is crucial to the conversation of Ed Tech (and all things associated with it…innovation, creativity, entrepreneurialism, etc.) in and out of the classroom.  But it had far less to do with technology and far more to do with culture.

If you have read the Innovator’s DNA (Dewer), Innovator’s Dilemma (Christensen), or even How To Get Ideas (Foster), you know that one of the keys to innovation is failure.If leaders want to embrace innovation, creativity, and healthy change, they need to generate a culture that believes failure provides enough lessons that it compensates for the lack of output.  After all, no organization and no innovator has a perfect track record.  Choose any innovator, inventor, or creative thinking from all of history and I’ll show you a trail of failures.  

And while this way of thinking…no, of being… is difficult in business, I would argue it is doubly so in education.  Without it, education will always struggle to be innovative, leaving creativity to individuals but likely not an entire organization.  Joseph Cevetello, formerly of USC and responsible for some impressive technology and innovation, said as much.  When asked during his plenary session which schools were genuinely innovative and doing ed tech well, he chuckled.  “Nobody has actually done this well,” he said.  “You can find pockets of innovation at many schools, but overall, no school is truly innovative.”  In fact, the panel which Joseph and I both sat on, which discussed Ed Tech reform agreed on two failure-driven points.  First, we need to create more opportunities for failure in education.  Second, we need to be ok with failing period – at all levels.

You know what that means.  Any person who works at a school (K-20) and even most people who have been students recently understand this.  What happens when a person fails at a school?

For students, it generally means they lose points, grades, and possibly even the “right” to attend.  Opportunities to fail are not really tolerated.  After all, if a person fails on the big exam, their school could lose funding, their scholarship could be in jeopardy, or the school’s ranking could suffer.  So, we don’t practice failing in other contexts.  There is too much at stake.

The same applies to educators and administration.  How many initiatives start every year, only to fizzle and die before the same time the next year?  Some instructors actually rely on this cycle, using a “duck and cover” approach to technology, pedagogy, or curricular initiatives, knowing that unless something succeeds BIG and FAST, everyone will move on to something else.  The initiator of the concept is marginalized or even fired, and the school moves forward without change (or often progress)…  In my 20 years, I’ve seen administrators fired for a loss of a single retention point.  I’ve seen staff fired for a bad technology roll out.  And on and on.

In fact, a great question during the panel illuminated one of the fundamental flaws for education.  “How can schools, who have ever tightening purse strings, with zero room for budget problems, afford to fail?  They have to take the safe route so as not to wind up in financial troubles, right?”  The question, which makes a strong point, is important.  In business, you budget for some losses.  The best, most innovative and technologically advanced companies put in buffers and contingencies.  Heck, Google has made so famous the 20% time and other companies have followed suit with hackathons that you can visibly see how companies allow for structured failure.  But not so in education.  Every dollar….every penny is clung to.  

So how can we combat this?  How can we demonstrate and encourage smart failure for students?  After all, we know from Carol Dweck’s research about the importance of fostering grit, tenacity, and perseverance.  And how a person deals with failure is smack in the middle of that Growth Mindset.  

How do we combat fragility of ego?  In my 20 years as a technology-centric trainer and instructor, I’ve heard (literally) hundreds of professors say that a major factor stopping them from using technology is the fear that it won’t work.  In other words, the fear of failure in front of students is more prudent than the capabilities that very technology might enable.  

Essentially, I believe it comes down to two factors: culture and attitude.  

Establishing a culture of innovation, creativity, entrepreneurialism, and even the growth mindset as it leads to critical thinking requires a culture of smart failure.  From the President to the Provost to the Chairs to the Faculty, and ultimately to the students, a culture of smart failure is the best way to produce the kinds of people industry wants to hire and the kinds of people who will have greater satisfaction in life.  This likely can be seen through how failure is treated.  Building an “autopsy” process for failed initiatives or processes so as to close the loop and move forward is a big step forward.  It shines a spotlight on the failure in terms of lessons learned and even provides an opportunity to suggest that the idea simply needs other variables addressed in order to succeed.  But doing this in the open will absolutely help schools generate amazing ideas.  Because, as Jack Foster reiterates in his book, “In order to get a great idea, you need to produce a lot of ideas.”  But if a school is so paralyzed by failure that it only produces a few ideas, the likelihood of a great one materializing is very unlikely.

But more pragmatically, at the instructor level, the answer is actually easier to deal with.  It’s about giving up some control and showcasing failure to students.  It’s about experimenting, testing, and piloting new concepts and ideas (whether technology based or not) and freely / openly admitting to students when they fail.  Here is one idea to exemplify the point: Want to try using Trello to capture group work?  Do it.  You’ll have unprecedented insights into how groups actually work – who does what and when.  What happens if students can’t join the Trello board or if your login information isn’t working?  Nothing really.  If you’re a master teacher, it becomes a teachable moment.  (Have students do something else, etc.)  Only an instructor who is unable to think on the fly, deal with adversity, and needs to detail every moment of class presentation would struggle.  (Although that would be ironic, as those traits are exactly what we are trying to avoid in students…)  So just let go and try.  

So start to embed opportunities for both failure and the postmortem conversations that clarify what to learn from those failures.  Try new things, OFTEN, in your classroom.  Show students how to curate wisely and then how to fail just as wisely.  Even if you can’t create a culture of failure at your institution, you can surely build up students who are able to fail smarter.  And that is a great thing.

Good luck and good learning.

Dr. Jeff D Borden
Chief Innovation Officer
Saint Leo University


About the Author
Dr. Jeff Borden

Dr. Jeff Borden

Dr. Jeff Borden (@bordenj), Saint Leo University’s Chief Innovation Officer, is a consultant, speaker, professor, comedian, and trainer, all while creating an incubator of innovation learning at SLU. Having continuously taught for 20 years as well as consulted, trained, and presented ways by which to transform education at scale, Jeff has assisted faculty, administrators, executives, and even politicians in conceptualizing and designing eLearning programs globally. Jeff has testified before the U.S. Congress’ Education Committee, blogs for Innovations, provides global keynote addresses, publishes in both Education and Communication periodicals, and has been asked to transform teaching and learning, at scale, for Saint Leo.  Jeff is also a regular contributor to the Teaching & Learning blog.


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