Mindsets of Public Design Bureau: Embracing (Small) Failure

Illustration by Camryn Cogshell. Learn more about our illustrators.

Mindsets of Public Design Bureau: Embracing (Small) Failure

What’s the mindset
Embracing (small) failure is treating an unexpected or undesired response as an opportunity to learn and adjust. It’s a mindset that pairs with a process of managed risk taking where each risk is small enough to limit the negative consequences of failure but large enough to prompt useful learning and change. 

Why it’s important 
Learning and making iterative changes is a crucial part of any design process—it’s how ideas can be prototyped, piloted, and improved. But it’s also a critical part—people are being critical of your ideas or work in progress. In a culture slanted toward perfectionism, hearing that negative critique doesn’t usually feel great, and sometimes our emotional reactions can get in the way of incorporating the new information…which leaves our ideas no better off. By resetting our mindset to embrace failure as an opportunity for learning, we can remain open to hearing or noticing all sorts of responses to our ideas, even those that are very different than expected. It also allows us to try out things we’re not sure will work, see what happens, and adjust as we go.

To be clear, this isn’t a “Move fast and break things” approach, but rather an intentional and iterative process that uses cycles of small risks to gather and incorporate useful feedback – positive and especially negative. By first embracing the possibility of failure, and then embracing the (small) failures themselves, we can effectively learn along the way and adjust, avoiding larger messes and roadblocks that would have eventually popped up.   

Embracing (small) failure in the real world
Liz: “When I bought my 114-year-old house in St. Louis, there were some serious holes in the basement floor. I was told by contractors, inspectors, and realtors that I needed to get those holes filled in, and was given quotes for tens of thousands of dollars to replace the floor. After several years of living with moisture, smells, trip hazards, and unusable basement space, 2020 offered time to take some managed risks. Despite having never poured cement and being unable to lift a standard 80 pound bag of cement mix, I borrowed a sledgehammer and bought 5 bags of cement. I didn’t expect it to go great or even fine, but I was determined to try. Starting with just one hole, I did my best to follow the directions, trying different containers, mixing speeds, and water to cement proportions. It took a few rounds of trying and my first patch was not flat or even. Yet, it did fill in the hole, and I decided to take what I had learned to the next hole. I kept reminding myself that if it didn’t work, I could always hire someone else to replace it — or live with the mess as I had been doing for years. However, I learned so much from all my small failures along the way that twenty bags of cement later, I was able to pour a mostly flat patch, and had repaired most of the floor.” 

Embracing (small) failure in design
We set up our design processes to have small, low-risk failures along the way. An important part of this process is completing multiple, iterative rounds of prototyping, where we make ideas and concepts tangible, and ask for feedback from the people who would be directly impacted by those ideas. (Spoiler: The ideas are never “right” and that’s the point – to gather lots of ways they can improve from different perspectives. Sometimes we even intentionally include details in testing that we’re pretty sure are “wrong” to break the ice with people and get the critical feedback flowing.) We might also advance ideas from prototypes into pilots, where we are intentionally seeking to learn by trying out ideas with people in the real context. 

Beyond the ideas themselves, we can embrace learning from failure throughout the collaboration process. Is a partner really hard to reach via email, causing delays and miscommunication? Let’s try phone calls, texts, or porch visits. Did a particular workshop activity land flat with participants? Let’s redesign it for the next session. Are our engagement methods so far missing a certain group of people or perspective? Let’s revise our approach to welcome and include them. At every step, we’re on the look out for what’s not working as expected and how we can adjust quickly now while the risks are still small. 

How we cultivate embracing (small) failure
To embrace failure, you have to work to lower the stakes so failure doesn’t seem so scary. Some ways to lower the stakes include: 

  • Prepare yourself. Failure will provoke feelings, and activating this mindset to reframe and redirect them will take brainpower! To do that, be sure to be fully hydrated, well-rested, and far from being hangry. Take plenty of breaks.
  • Break things down into smaller, bite-sized pieces. If you’re filling in holes in the floor, you might start with just one hole. If you’re working on a design project, you might choose just one part of the challenge to explore at a time.
  • Test things out early and often with people who know. Get lots of feedback and input by sharing the ideas you have with people who are directly impacted and people who would know about implementing these ideas. Don’t invest too much time or too many resources in a direction before you test it.
  • Create intentional pilots before full-scale implementation, with clear areas that you’re looking to learn about. After each pilot, spend time debriefing with others about what you learned, what worked, and what you might change going forward. 
  • Actively celebrate moments of learning from failure. Make these an important part of your project’s story, and share them with others in a way that celebrates the leap you took. Or give yourself a literal gold star – whatever works for you to rewire “failure=bad” into “failure=valuable information to learn from”.  

Do you have a story about embracing failure? We’d love to hear more about it! Comment below, or send us a note.

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