Failure is Creative

If creativity means associating objects and ideas into new forms, and innovation is the implementation of these ideas, it stands to reason that not every new idea and not every attempt at innovation will yield a desirable result. This is often perceived as failure.

Virtually every successful innovation or invention emerges from “failure.” The Wright brothers attempted flight countless times before they got it right. Thomas Edison is reported to have failed repeatedly before successfully inventing the incandescent light bulb. Sometimes an unsuccessful project can generate information or an object that finds success in a completely unintended way. Take for example the Post-it note: the glue on the back of this ubiquitous square of paper was originally meant to be a super strong adhesive. In his “failure,” the inventor succeeded in producing a pressure-sensitive glue that would leave no residue and could be re-used.  It was a failed invention for its intended use, but perfect for sticking and re-sticking pieces of paper.  The Post-it was born but totally unplanned.

 “Failure” in Business

The notion that creative thinking must always produce a successful result is in fact an impediment to creativity and innovation itself. Unsuccessful attempts at creation can generate banks of very useful data or even products. As Edison once told a journalist: “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Indeed, knowing what doesn’t work is essential knowledge.

However, it’s not always that easy. In an organization that wishes to develop new products or services and has limited resources to do so, the risk of “failure” is a serious deterrent to liberating the actors involved and allowing them to engage in true creative thinking. The costs associated with unsuccessful attempts at creativity and innovation can have a quick and profound impact on the bottom line. Here lies the catch-22: avoiding the risk is a guaranteed brake on innovation, which can also place an organization in a very precarious position.

 “Failure” at school

This is also true in schools where teaching to a test or to satisfy some other easily measurable level of “success” will dominate the curriculum to the exclusion of the less predictable results of creative pedagogy. As Tina Seelig points out in her book The Innovation Engine, teaching students that 5+5=10 is easier to control than asking them what + what = 10, for the number of different answers is literally infinite, and the acquisition of the concept less obvious to measure. Here, like in business, the “wrong” answer would actually lead the student to a more profound understanding of addition than simply memorizing the “right” answer.

As many researchers into creativity have pointed out, what is perceived as failure should instead be considered as the generation of new data and new knowledge from which subsequent attempts at creativity can draw.