If you’re a professional creative, you know risk and failure are basic elements of your every day. In fact, rising to the upper echelon of the creative industry demands managing failure and taking risks.
Most creatives are so used to taking risks that they don’t even think about failure anymore. They expect it because, in truth, 99% of ideas are simply failed experimentations on the path to that 1% breakthrough. In design, we set the bar high and expect to fail over and over before we ever get there.
Designers are not alone in their affinity for risk. There’s a powerful interview of the much-lauded neurosurgeon Henry Marsh that speaks to his profession’s incredible risk tolerance. Technically, neurosurgeons fail most of the time because of the critical nature of a patient’s injuries and the complexity of the procedures themselves. Nonetheless, they push to change the lives of that lucky small percentage of surviving patients and are universally lauded for their efforts.
On simpler terms, there are Hall of Fame baseball players who failed at more than 66% of their at bats yet are the most successful players in history.
Surely, failure on this level is not the norm. I don’t believe that the best of the creative, medical, or sports industries are a true benchmark for every other business in the world. There are industries where personal harm, safety, and security warrant a more hardlined aversion to risk. Still, it is clear that there is a calculable benefit to embracing risk and eventual failure as a necessity for innovation. We have the ability to simply “get used” to a quantifiable amount of risk—as in a batting average or a surgical process—and therefore, we might be able to train our companies and clients to turn up their risk volume.
Consider a company like SpaceX. Elon Musk took enormous risks on radically rethinking space exploration. Perhaps his most audacious demonstration of his ability to embrace risk and fail without fear was in a simple series of tweets celebrating the destruction of hundred-million dollar rockets as mistakes on the journey toward success. It’s clear that he sees mistakes as knowledge generators, and as a result, he is poised to revolutionize space transportation by introducing reusability.
Back on Earth, Nike ultimately failed with the creation of its Fuelband wearable, which launched as one of the first mass-market fitness trackers designed to use its proprietary “fuel points” metrics to allow wearers to compare their daily tallies. Even with lackluster sales and the ultimate discontinuation of the product, Nike’s efforts helped push the entire wearables industry forward while positioning the brand as a digitally centric, data-rich company developing products that help athletes improve.
This uncommon perception of risk and failure is not unfamiliar to creatives. Designers already know how to fail fast, repeatedly, and upward in high-pressure environments on their way to a solution. From the earliest days of design school, “the crit”—the tear down, stomp on, rip into, public debasing of student work in front of peers—is meant to build tolerance for quick failure and adaptation. This continues in the environments of agencies and studios, architecture firms and technology startups, where pressure from above and from peers drives creativity forward.
Yet, unlike creative shops, companies like SpaceX and Nike are often taking risks at a huge scale with more on the line than just accusations of tone-deaf delivery or a questionable rebrand. SpaceX and Tesla, in particular, risk not only the viability of their entire industries but, in the cases of manned space travel and autonomous cars, people's lives. That’s revolutionary stuff, worthy of a broader conversation about how to help all industries recognize success and failure as more than a binary outcome. In the everyday world of creativity, there are many ways to find benefits through smart, controlled failures to yield greater future successes. Doing this can lead to a complete recontextualization of the idea of failure and over time can change conservative mindsets within organizations.
As creatives with a strong understanding of risk and failure, we should lead the discussion on how our processes and attitudes, and those of risk-tolerant brands, raise the bar for the industry at large. In order to break new ground, we have to continue to make risk a naturally accepted part of every creative process. We have to continue to create cultures where incremental failure isn’t feared, but celebrated. It’s hard to do, but without it each industry, whether focusing on design, medicine, or selling shoes, is strangling the potential for true innovation.