Celebrating Failure: An Interview with Dr. Samuel West

August 9, 2022

“Fail fast.”

“Fail forward.”

“There’s no innovation and creativity without failure.”

“Failure’s not an option.”

A lot of language gets thrown around about failure in innovation.

It all seems well and good until someone actually fails.

Then? All hell breaks loose. People point fingers, make excuses, and look for the sacrificial lambs. Someone to reprimand or even fire because things didn’t go as planned.

When it comes to innovation, people don’t give credit to the fact that failure is a crucial part of progress. And consistent progress is ultimately how you end up with success.

When people say, “Failure is not an option,” they’re also saying neither is innovation. It’s impossible to try new things, experiment, and test potentials without risk. With risk comes failure. And with failure comes learning.

When people say, “Failure is not an option,” they’re also saying neither is innovation.

Tim Harford writes about this in his book, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure. He says, “We’re so anxious not to ‘draw a line under a decision we regret’ that we end up causing still more damage while trying to erase it.” He then tells the story of what happens to poker players who’ve lost money. They end up making riskier bets than they’d normally take because they’re desperate to make up for what they’ve lost. Essentially, they want to “erase their mistake.”

This is a classic example of how people think of failure. We may have failed, but we’re desperate to erase our mistake.

If we can change our thought process after we fail, however, it makes all the difference in the world. Looking at what’s happened and understanding how to train our brain to respond positively, rather than in defeat, helps us reframe failure’s role in our life.

But how, exactly, do we do that?

Good failure vs bad failure

Dr. Samuel West, founder of the Museum of Failure

I discovered the work of Dr. Samuel West, an organizational psychologist, when I was doing research for my  book RE:Think Innovation. I found his approach of openly celebrating and learning from failure fascinating. He normalizes failure’s place in our path to innovation.

I listened to one interview in which Samuel, in his charming and down-to-earth way, talks about the difference between good failure and bad.

Bad failure comes from incompetence, insubordination, or people not following instructions. These types of failures shouldn’t be accepted or celebrated. This is truly failure.

On the other hand, good failure is failure in the name of progress. Samuel describes these as situations when you’re pushing boundaries, testing new ways of doing things, digging into new technologies, and giving new ideas some breathing room. These are the types of failures that we should not only be in hot pursuit of, but also celebrating.

Samuel didn’t just wake up one day and say, “hey, let’s give failure a big high five!”

Nope.

Rather, he started out his career treating depression, anxieties, and relationship problems. He later became obsessed with happiness, especially as it relates to work, and the relationship between happiness and affluence. He’s taught and done research; his PhD focused on how workplace playfulness boosts innovation. As an American Icelander, he lived in Sweden for many years before moving to Spain.

This seemingly meandering path has been the perfect journey for him to understand failure, particularly in innovation.

The Museum of Failure

How does one come to celebrate failure in a tangible way? With a museum, of course!

In 2017, with  financial support from Sweden’s Innovation Fund, Samuel launched a truly one-of-a-kind project, The Museum of Failure.

This traveling exhibit is a collection of failed products and services from around the world. It celebrates failures that range from the ridiculous (Colgate Lasagna) to the cool (DeLorean DMC-12). From the frightening (Rejuvenique electric facial mask) to the fun (Oreos…a lot of Oreos).

Colgate lasagna…does it make you think of mint-flavored lasagna, or lasagna flavored mouthwash?
One user described experiencing the Rejuvenique as being bitten by 1,000 ants.

Remember Pringles made with Olestra? While the brand’s marketing claimed 100% satisfaction and 0% guilt, they didn’t happen to mention the incredibly violent diarrhea that came as a side effect. Oops!

Fat-free Pringles made with Olestra came with a side of violent diarrhea!

I took a day trip to Minneapolis earlier this year to see The Museum of Failure firsthand, before it moved onto Taipei, Taiwan. It was as entertaining and educational as I had hoped.

My favorite exhibit? The Hawaii Chair. Listed on Time Magazine’s “50 Worst Inventions” list in 2010, this chair gives you the ultimate ab-workout while at your desk. After giving it a spin, I’d say it’s tagline, “If you can sit, you can get fit”, is as ineffective as the chair itself. 

All of this failure led me to even more questions that I’m delighted Samuel was willing to answer.

Failure’s role in innovation

1. What sent you down the path of specifically studying failure?

After 10 years as a clinical psychologist, I started a PhD in Organizational Psychology that focused on how organizations can increase creativity and innovation. In this research, along with my consulting practice, I became more and more fascinated with how the fear of failure is a massive obstacle to innovation. There were so many interesting stories of organizational failure that needed to be told. 

2. You talk about your research and work with creativity and play and how they impact innovation. Why are so many organizations “anti-play” and serious?

The ”guru” of organizational psychology separated organizational activities into two categories, exploitation and exploration. Both are necessary. Exploitation is about creating things or services, selling them, delivering them, etc. It’s what the company does to make money. Exploration is often forgotten or neglected. New business development, innovation testing, new methods experimentation, etc.

In my research, I found that the element of playfulness can encourage innovation through experimentation and exploration. In play it is ok to fail since it is imagination and not focused on the end results. So when people approach work tasks with a playful approach, it is conducive to exploration and experimentation. 

Many organizations are anti-play because they feel, wrongfully, that it is a waste of time and resources. In play we are not focused on organizational objectives – and it is this that scares management. Being playful also involves being vulnerable in front of others, and this is only possible if the team has a good level of psychological safety.

3. There may be people in organizations of low trust who want to make an impact and do their part in shifting culture. Recognizing that sometimes organizational change comes from a trickle-up effect, where and how can a group leader begin to build psychological safety for their team?

Psychological safety is tricky. It is a rather simple concept to grasp, but difficult to attain. It takes time and effort. And change does often trickle-up. A group leader can be aware of what psychological safety is, and be quick to recognize and reward this type of behavior.

The best thing a leader can do for psychological safety is to role-model the behavior. Admit your own failures, ask uncomfortable questions, expect everyone to fully participate, and practice being vulnerable in front of your team. Playfulness can be an excellent tool for this, but it’s not the only or even necessarily the best way. But presenting your full self at work as a manager allows others in the team to do the same. It’s also a good idea for leaders to read up on psychological safety.

4. You talk about the difference between good failure and bad failure. When people are new to innovation, how can they tell in the moment which camp they’re in? 

If your failure was preventable and predictable, you are probably in the swamp of “bad failure.” If the failure was done for progress, in experimentation or because you were learning something new, then it most likely “good failure” 

5. In the Museum of Failure, there are so many failures that seem obvious even without hindsight (hello…Olestra…). How did they make it across the finish line and into the real world of consumers? Are they cases of the Emperor’s New Clothes?

Yes, hindsight makes everything so obvious and clear. There is no one reason why destined-to-fail products and services make it to market, yet there are so many ways to fail! But at the museum there are several loose themes. One is management hubris, when leaders refuse to listen to their employees. Another reason is that when a new technology is over-hyped, people let down their healthy skepticism and follow the other lemmings off the cliff. 

6. What’s the biggest lesson you learned, or theme you noticed, from curating the Museum of Failure?

Oh…this is a difficult one! I think the most important lesson I’ve learned is that people/consumers forgive failure. They’re not so hard on failure when you own up to it. It’s the coverup, deflection, denial, and trying to make things look good with corporate bullshit that people hate. So, yeah, as long as it doesn’t lead to too much injury or death, it is usually only money that is at risk when we speak of innovation failure. Dare to be bold, failure isn’t the disaster many assume it is. 

7. What’s a failure you personally had that turned into an unexpected success?

So so sooo many failures… hmmm, but a failure that led to success…. I got sued by my former business partner and the legal costs put me into personal bankruptcy. In many ways, that was a failure. This ultimately forced me to get serious with my business and financial strategies, which has been a great success.  

If you’d like to check out more from Samuel, have a look at the Disgusting Food Museum. But I do recommend having a look when you have a healthy buffer between meals…

Photo credit: Mel Johnson

     About Carla

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Carla is a world-renowned storyteller, an entertaining speaker, and a prolific author. Having lived, worked, and studied on five continents, she's partnered with top brands and conferences to train thousands of people how to rethink the work that they do and the impact they can have. Her visionary expertise has inspired and equipped leaders at all levels to embrace change, welcome new ideas, and transform their business.

Her work with Fortune 500 brands served as the foundation for many of her books. Her tenth, RE:Think Innovation, is a #1 new release that busts the myth that innovation is something that requires a specific degree or special training. In fact, Carla explains why, to be a successful company in today's hyper-competitive, customer-driven world, innovation must be everyone's business. Her goal is to teach one million people how to become innovators by 2025.

Consistently named one of the top influencers in B2B, digital and content marketing, Carla regularly challenges conventional thinking. Today, she travels the world teaching anyone (and everyone) how to cultivate idea-driven teams that breed unstoppable creativity and game-changing innovation.