Everyone working in innovation knows that failure is key in the innovation process. We know it’s important to fail fast, fail often and the value that failure brings to the products we are making.

But what happens when you are part of a team and your failure impacts someone else’s work? How can failure and constructive feedback become an integral part of a design team’s culture? It can be hard to learn and grow when all we want to hear is the “good” feedback, not that we have to start from scratch.

How can you encourage a good team culture where failure drives creativity and personal growth? Even in agile software development—where open feedback, iteration and “retrospective” sessions after each development cycle are commonplace—how do we make sure failure is not a stigma on a day-to-day basis?

Establish everyone's commitment

First and foremost, you need to clarify everyone's commitment in the design team.  This is not about roles and responsibilities—it’s more granular than that. What is the person’s actual commitment to the progress of the team, as well as the product? Someone’s main skill might be “iOS developer,” but do they also have skills and knowledge within the field of user experience and/or visual design etc.? Maybe this person has several ideas and good solutions for how to engage the user. Knowing this as a team will eventually lead to a more collaborative project and the risk of failure will decrease.

You also need to ask everyone what and how much they can commit to the team. For example, if someone is always in good spirits, can they commit to being the ones who bring positive energy to the team every day? Or, at the other end of the spectrum, if someone enjoys being pragmatic, can they commit to keeping everyone on track in terms of what the immediate priorities are? Leverage your team’s strengths and use them to reinforce their commitment to a cause or initiative.

Establish team principles

Once you are clear about what each individual’s commitment is, you need to establish what's important to the team as a whole. These are principles the team collectively considers crucial on a daily basis. Making team commitments breaks silos and helps create a sense of community.

Failure is key in the innovation process

For example, at the beginning of a project, you could tackle all initial tasks as a team, even if in theory you only need one or two people. After all, the transfer of knowledge between disciplines is key in good product design, particularly at the beginning of the process. With a strong sense of what it means to be part of a team, clear expectations and a culture where it's okay to make mistakes and learn from them, your team will run smoother, have more fun and probably push the product forward beyond anyone’s imagination.

Whatever you decide on, one key principle can (and should) be: "Make sure it's okay to fail.” To grow professionally, designers and innovators have to go out of their comfort zone and take risks; by doing so, they are more likely to fail. Making this tolerance of risk-taking clear from the beginning is crucial to create an open culture.

Be open about the risks you are taking

Once you have established the ground rules both individually and as a team, it comes down to how things work on a daily basis.

The one thing that every successful team in the world has in common is good communication. By this, we are not talking about endless meetings, but rather the useful exchange of information so that everyone understands exactly what's going on and when. Lack of good communication can lead to failure.

To get around this, some agile teams use a forum, or stand-up, to communicate. A stand-up is a short and efficient update where every team member talks about what they are doing and what’s going to happen next. This clarity and openness helps them understand each other better, and in turn encourages people to take risks, embrace failure and do their best work.

For example, let’s imagine you are working on a task that is beyond your comfort zone. You want to make this product amazing, and you think this task will get the team there. However, it’s a bit risky. You haven't tried this approach before or perhaps, last time you tried it, it didn’t work. In that context, the best thing to do is to tell your team what you are planning to do, why you think it will add value to the project and what the risks are, so they know what to expect. By doing this, you give yourself permission to fail along the way in pursuing your ambition to create an excellent product.

Lead by example

Even with open communications, “risk” and “failure” are still uncomfortable terms for most people. So, how can you make sure your team embraces them? The best you can do is lead by example.  Whatever your position in the team is, make sure you set the right standard. If it's okay for you to fail, it needs to be for everyone else. If someone on the team messes up, make sure you acknowledge what happened, then discuss openly what didn’t work and what everyone has learned from the experience.


If you are a product manager or a person in a managerial position looking to encourage failure and experimentation in product innovation, here are some tips:

  • Be clear that letting go of failure will help the product, not just the team.
  • Make sure there are commitments that belong to the team, not just the individuals.
  • Set expectations on a daily basis, and encourage honesty by asking the right questions
  • Be a role model, get out of your comfort zone so your team feel they can do the same.
  • Tackle initial tasks as a team to establish good communication
  • Most importantly, have fun. A happy team is an efficient team.

Now, get out there and start failing. It will get you further.



Image of man holding his face courtesy Shutterstock.