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The title is not the beginnings of a bad joke, I promise...

Monday kicked off a week-long program of events hosted by the Innovation Agency titled the 'Learning From Failure Roadshow'.  In its first stop at Aintree Racecourse, the Bromford Lab was invited to kick off proceedings with a session called 'Thinking Differently About Failure'.  We were super excited to be asked to take part as the roadshow also included the Museum of Failure and we were honoured to meet the curator, Samuel West, and spend time with him talking about where the concept had come from and his own thoughts on failure and innovation.


For those of you who haven't heard of the Museum of Failure, its a curated exhibition of innovation failures from all over the world, giving visitors an insight into innovation and how risky it can be if not done right.  It's also really interesting to see how many innovation projects actually fail (clue - it's a lot) and the reasons why, as some of them could easily have been avoided.  Donald Trump has his own area in the LA gallery - make of that what you will...

It was also great to get to know the Innovation Agency more and hear about the integral role they are playing in the spread and adoption of innovation to improve health and care across the North West Coast region. Health and care is much like housing in that it has, up until recently, been very traditional in its approach to service improvements and has to deal with pressures of silo working and public scrutiny when promoting new ways of working. With emergence of groups like the Innovation Agency and NHS Horizons, however, this is starting to change and I for one am very excited by some of the tests and exploration work they are assisting in.   


Risk is life. We accept this.  Followers of the Bromford Lab will know our CEO Philippa Jones summarises innovation as 'getting things wrong over and over again, but getting it a little less wrong at each iteration'.  When we were preparing our slides, Simon likened it to the process of teaching children to ride a bike.  As he surmised, you add stabilisers, you pad them up a bit and you start them off on grass so that when they fall off, they don't hurt themselves. Slowly, but surely, they keep getting back up and trying again. Through this ‘iteration’ they learn how to ride, and all of a sudden they balance themselves. No one (that we know of) has ever stopped their child learning how to ride a bike because of the risk.

In our personal lives, we learn how to manage risk. Heck, we may even embrace it on occasion, so why is this thinking so hard to transfer into organisational culture?

If we refuse to embrace failure as part of an iterative process, we can’t innovate. The risk isn't that we will fail, it is that we will not learn from our failures.  Like I say, it's better to fail 1,000 times and have learnt something than to have never failed and never learnt.  

OK, I'm human too and I know it sucks when something doesn't work out. But even geniuses like Edison, Einstein, even our Lab Guru, Elon Musk, got things wrong (or as Edison put it, he just found 99 ways not to do something). Nobody wants things to fail, but the reality is that many projects fail to meet their intended objectives.  Fast failure is good risk management.  Making things work artificially for your organisation or customers is not. In fact, it can be near on catastrophic.


Our session centred around this theme and our aim was to ensure delegates went away thinking more positively about failure and would be more confident in creating space for new ideas and discussions, as well as sharing our journey in finding ways in which the more agile realm of innovation could find commonality with programme management.  

But, seeing as we are the Bromford Lab, we don't like to talk too much at you in our sessions - we like to get people thinking and moving around a bit!  


One of our key themes was around not making assumptions. Human centred design work requires you to understand people as individuals and gather rich insights to inform decisions rather than making judgements based upon what you think you already know. We've all heard people make a sweeping statement on what they think is best for their customers, but this is a dangerous road to tread down and is ultimately the one many organisations have trodden when at the end of a project they have been left with a service that no one uses or likes. It answered the problem THEY THOUGHT was there, so in terms of a project it was successful, but not the ACTUAL problem, so therefore became an innovation failure.

For our first session, we drew inspiration from the Danish TV2 'All That We Share' TV advert and asked delegates to come forward if they had indeed done the following things:

  • Been on an activist march
  • Won a medal for sports as an adult
  • Been to an all-night party/rave (yes, even the speakers had to get involved, no prizes for guessing which one it was though)
  • Saved a life

We are all human. Even the most broad-minded individuals will formulate an impression of a person when they first meet them, its how we navigate the world. This exercise aims to show that you should never make an assumption, as people will often surprise you!

Our other key theme was sharing the Bromford Lab approach to using controlled failure to build evidence and learning at an early stage, thereby mitigating the risk of catastrophic failure in the future, meaning you design products and services that will work for people rather than against them. Now, we can tell you all about that, but what we really wanted to do was get people to practise this. Enter Chindogu.....

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Simply put, Chindogu is the art of creating an unusual gadget, originally created as the solution to a particular problem, although effectively it's really almost useless. This activity asked groups to solve a particular problem using the objects we gave them - which is where our satchel wearing, baby carrying, St Bernard comes in to solve world peace. The group who put this idea forward designed this because 'no one can stay mad at a baby or dog'. In terms of solving the problem, it is a success, because they have created something that can diffuse a heated situation. In reality though, we all know this isn't going to work, so in that sense it is a failure, but at this point, we introduced the concept of turning wild ideas into wiser ones, taking the learning from the last part and using this in another iteration of the product. 

Other ideas suggested by participants included having a BBQ hosted by cats to tackle loneliness (in true Chindogu style, the BBQ had a umbrella attached to it so it works in the rain), children riding roller-skates with brooms attached to sweep up rubbish in poverty stricken parts of the world, a hotel porter riding a unicycle to generate sustainable power during long night shifts and a robot that did all jobs to stop unemployment by literally doing away with the concept of employment.

Each of these ideas alone solve the intended problem they were meant to but in the market, they would fail.  The exciting thing that followed in the second iteration was that every group was able to identify key areas they could build upon to answer a problem that was relevant to them in the sector they currently work with.  Going back to our baby toting St Bernard, this was iterated into a social movement founded upon a strong symbol to encourage more collaborative working across different backgrounds.  So whilst the exercise is slightly mad, it does encourage more creative thinking which in turn can produce real outcomes for real problems.  So don't worry Miss Universe, world peace still needs to be solved...

I'm not going to lie, we were a bit nervous about our Chindogu activity, but it was really well received and was great to watch what people can achieve not only when they have the space to let their imagination run wild, but the tools to identify the important insights that help iterate a crazy failure into an idea that can solve some of the wicked problems the public sector is facing. 

In summary:

The Innovation Agency asked us to share our key takeaways (which they used as part of their blog, which can be found here) so what better way to round up this piece.  In essence:

  • We shouldn’t make assumptions based on what we think we know
  • We need to get better at distinguishing between failing in a controlled way in order to learn and catastrophic failure
  • If you start with tame ideas you’ll just end up with more of the same. Thinking radically doesn’t have to be risky if you put the right frameworks in place
  • Embracing small, cheap and safe failure is good risk management and a way of avoiding catastrophic failure further down the line
  • By sharing our failure stories with others we can build learning networks which ultimately lead to better outcomes

And if all else fails, just remember - it's exactly like learning how to ride a bike.