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What Kind of Failure Will Work?

June 28, 2011

Innovation leaders navigate a balance between understanding

  • the contributions learning from failure make in innovative processes
  • and the drivers of risk-adverse business environments.

Koch_snowflake_(RGB-CMY)So, taking a lead from the Eskimos’ rich vocabulary for snow, Jamer Hunt proposed the following failure spectrum:

Abject failure
This is the really dark one. It marks you and you may not ever fully recover from it. People lose their lives, jobs, respect, or livelihoods. Examples: British Petroleum’s Gulf oil spill; mortgage-backed securities.

Structural failure
It cuts – deeply – but it doesn’t permanently cripple your identity or enterprise. Examples: the iPhone 4’s antenna; Windows Vista.

Glorious failure
Going out in a botched but beautiful blaze of glory – catastrophic but exhilarating. Example: Jamaican bobsled team.

Common failure
Everyday instances of screwing up that are not too difficult to recover from. The apology was invented for this category. Examples: oversleeping and missing a meeting at work; overcooking the tuna.

Version failure
Small failures that lead to incremental but meaningful improvements over time. Examples: Linux operating system; evolution.

Predicted failure
Failure as an essential part of a process that allows you to see what it is you really need to do more clearly because of the shortcomings. Example: the prototype – only by creating imperfect early versions of it can you learn what’s necessary to refine it.”

Yes, we can learn something from any type of failure.

But this kind of language goes further, by helping us recognize the kind of failure we’re actually risking and the kind that just may work.

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