From our first ventures in arts and crafts at school to the most ambitious DIY project – failure is common. Whether that’s failing to paint a picture as originally intended, or building something that looks more like Frankenstein than a monolithic Bauhaus piece. The moment we see the mismatch between vision and execution, our creativity levels take a hit. I’d like to share some insights into how learning from failure can bring your ideas to life and refuel your creativity through experimentation.
Good news: Failure actually IS an option
There’s an almost cartoon-like perception that ideas just pop up out of nowhere and are oh-so-easily transferred into actions and results. The reality, however, is that even Thomas Edison – the inventor of the lightbulb and the visual metaphor for thoughtful creation – tried several thousand different variations before his most famous invention was ready to use.
The basis of his initial idea remained the same, but the exact way to construct it was completely unknown to Edison. He failed again and again, before finally finding through trial and error something that did exactly what he wanted.
Not knowing how the final result will be or how you’ll actually get there is the exciting part of any creative process.
Accepting the unknown unknowns
Sometimes you know that you don’t know something – other times you don’t even know about the things you don’t know anything about. Edison was no different and faced a number of obstacles he did not – or could not –foresee: so-called ‘unknown unknowns’ such as the heat increasein some of his earlier prototypes.
This uncertainty is the reason why classical project management methods and exact planning block creative processes.
Kids are different: See children as fearless role models for creativity
The root of the problem is that somewhere along the line, adulthood tells us that failure is a sign of weakness and chaos.
How often do you hear people say things like “If we’d planned better, then the idea would not have failed”? This is a mindset issue.
Look at kids trying new experiences or solving challenging tasks, you can see that they always iterate between coming up with ideas and testing them immediately. When they fail, they just go again and again until they find a solution. They’re not afraid of failing and are therefore able to learn from it. For real-life examples check out this Ted Talk by Tom Wujec on the Marshmallow Challenge.
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Making changes: Learn to embrace failure as part of the creative process
Being creative is embracing this uncertainty and looking for inspiration to develop your idea further, making it a reality. If your idea becomes reality just as you’d planned it, then the creation was a mere execution of your thoughts and not a creative process.
Becoming more creative needs a willingness to try, reflect, adapt and push yourself. As one of the best chefs in the world put it:
There are some simple tools to create an environment of learning. In the framework of ‘design thinking’ it is called prototyping, but you might know it also as modelling, drafting or sketching. Try to create as soon as possible a tangible version of your idea. This will give you a much clearer vision of your idea, it’ll be easier to share it with others. Their feedback should be seen as a gift – a source of inspiration – as it will help you to identify the pitfalls in your initial plan.
Your first prototype enables a loop of building, testing, maybe failing if the feedback is not clear enough, and learning again and is therefore a quick start into a creative process.
Here are four tips to give yourself a head start in how to approach this topic:
- Carry out a lot of small experiments with your ideas, then just one big test. Even a paper sketch is enough to get feedback from users and colleagues and will help you develop your idea in the right direction
- Work with hypothesis: What do you want to find out? What are your assumptions? Hypothesis will help us to quickly evaluate the feedback of users
- Don’t spent too much time making your ideas look amazing. If your prototype looks a little too good, people might be afraid to share their true opinion
- Seek feedback from power users – people with a very strong demand, need or opinion of your idea. They will often help you more, even if their feedback can seem harsher. We are here to learn, not to celebrate our own creativity.
I hope by now you are already standing and looking for material to try out your ideas. Don’t be discouraged if your idea fails – better you fail at an early stage than later; or as a co-founder of IDEO once said: