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10 Steps To Celebrate Failure Through Design Thinking

As the year comes to a close, I’ve been reflecting on my growth in the last year and what increases my own development. I believe that the way we as individuals and organizations do or don’t accept, appreciate, and even celebrate failures is highly linked to our growth. Errors, mistakes, and failures are all a part of life. However the way that we respond to these moments is what defines our development.

Some places believe that mistakes are a demarcation of irreparable failure. However, this is a misguided sense of what leadership is. Leadership is not perfection, but rather a process towards improving individuals, organizations, and communities. This process includes mistakes because these can be opportunities to learn, innovate, and grow.


However for some, mistakes can feel debilitating. Beth Kanter states that some dysfunctional responses to failures include blaming others, being in denial, or blaming ourselves (see her video here[1]). Without allowing space for mistakes we cannot be innovative and without innovation we will not be able to effectively and efficiently tackle the large-scale problems we want to eradicate.


In a field where so many are burnt-out[2], it may be hard to find time to reflect and evaluate how our experiments work, much less how they do not work. However, by making time to harvest lessons, we are saving ourselves time in the future because it increases our efficiency by allowing us to act with intentionality towards our goals. I’d also like to note that this does not mean no one is accountable for mistakes, but rather that we can turn them into opportunities.

At last year’s Creating Space, Kim Dabbs shared a Design Thinking guide to improve our gift giving[3]. However, I have modified it to create a step-by-step tool for working through failure in a healthier way.

1.      Gain Empathy: Reflect
Reflect on your feelings to make sure you’re not reacting unhealthily. Do you blame someone, are you in denial, or do you feel guilty? If so, take a moment to collect yourself and calmly think back on what happened. Forgive yourself and others.

2.      Gain Empathy: Dig Deeper
When you believe you know what the issue is, invite others in and ask them what they believe happened; not from a place of finding blame but from a place of reflection and evaluation.  Remember empathy is key to rebuilding; so really listen without judgement and without trying to place blame.

3.      Reframe: Infer Insights
With all of your reflections and those of your team in hand, what have you now learned?

4.      Reframe: Set A Goal
From your findings, what is your conclusion? What do you believe happened? Take a stand on what an inspired challenge may be. This is not a solution, but what you strive for; setting a clear goal.

5.      Creation: New Ideas
Come up with a list of new ideas that can accomplish your goal. Get creative and brainstorm new ideas as well as reimagine tested experiments. Do not assume that the old and tried is done with, just because it failed once doesn't mean it has to be thrown out. Take your failures apart and rebuild them, this is a key part of innovation. You may find that certain approaches should be gone, and if so that is also ok, but be sure to document all of your ideas.

6.      Creation: Share New Ideas: Collective Leadership
Share your new ideas and solutions with your team and those around you and get their feedback.

7.      Iterate: Reflect Some More and Generate A Plan
With the feedback from your team/clients/participants, create a plan to reach your goal.

8.      Build & Test: Build Your Solution
It can be a model, or a smaller-scale solution, but create something you can interact with.

9.      Build & Test: Share & Collect Feedback
Allow others to interact and respond to your new solution. What does your team think? Does it reach your goal? You’re going to make mistakes in this process; embrace it. If this solution does not meet your goal then go back to a previous step and try again. Did you misunderstand the problem? Do you need to re-evaluate your goal? Should you try another idea? What does the team say? Try again.

10.   Communication: Document Your Process
This is also an important step because people forget things and organizations have turnover. It is important to document your findings and preserve them for others to learn about why things were designed the way they were, as well as for yourself to understand what your thinking was at the time. Maybe you made assumptions at the time that were incorrect and by reading your findings at a later time you could correct this and avoid future mistakes. You can also share this with others around you and others in the field through the Leadership Learning Community’s blog.

Failure is a part of life, but we can respond to it in a way that sets us up for future successes. By reflecting, empathizing, and truly listening to ourselves and those around us we can innovate solutions that do not stifle creativity by punishing mistakes, but rather that allow us to create innovative solutions that will enable us to reach our goal of a better world.

[1] Beth Kanter’s video was originally posted through Movie Mondays. She shares it through her “Failure and Learning” Scoop It.

[2] Check out Pathways Strategies’ Nonprofit Burnout Survey – 2014 Report

[3] Plattner, Hasso. An Introduction To Design Thinking. Institute of Design at Stanford. Downloadable link here.