Generate Monster Ideas by Generating Monster Failures

by Stefan Mumaw

We spend an inordinate amount of time avoiding failure, but the truth is, avoiding failure means taking trusted approaches to solving problems, and trusted approaches rarely lead to monster ideas.

One of the hallmarks of a monster idea is the presence of novelty in some form, and when we take trusted approaches to solving problems, we are sequestering novelty to limit risk. If we solve a problem the exact same way everyone else has, we don’t risk failure but we also don’t risk success. We often live our creative lives generating ideas that won’t fail instead of generating ideas that have a chance to succeed.

If failure isn’t an accepted, integrated part of your creative process, you probably have had few monster ideas see the light of day. Often, it’s not failure that is fundamentally needed, though. It’s the freedom to fail within our creative process that yields the most monstrous of concepts. If we work into our ideation both the chance and acceptance of failure, we give ourselves the greatest opportunity to generate monster ideas because we’re inviting novelty to the party, and we’re opening ourselves to explore new paths.

Here are three factors to consider when opening your ideas to epic failure in hopes of finding sleeping monsters:

Fail Early
There are always consequences when you fail, even if those failures are meant for good. Most of us aren’t in situations that easily absorb failure, but there’s a way we can mitigate the consequences of failure: fail early. With new paths come new challenges, aspects of our ideas that we don’t know how to achieve. When you generate ideas that have an unknown coming somewhere in the process, start with the unknown and prototype. Prototyping is making a mockup of the function, the thing it needs to do. If you wait until the end to tackle the unknown and that unknown blows up, the consequences are far more severe than if it blows up early in the process.

Fail Often
There’s a stigma to failure that comes from a very human need to succeed and be accepted. Very few people celebrate failures and the people that create them. The only way to integrate failure into your creative process and learn to accept it is to partake in it often. Failing often means limiting the size of your potential failures by taking small risks throughout your initial processes until you get accustomed to the consequences and can have a few successes to offset the stigma. If we initially take smaller risks, absorb smaller failures and see smaller successes, we’ll work our way up to absorb larger failures and reap larger successes.

Fail Fearlessly
Close your eyes and think of your worst creative failure, the idea that’s been your biggest unmitigated disaster. Now ask yourself this question: did it break you? I’m guessing most of us would say ‘no’. We are actually stronger for it, we learned valuable lessons that we take with us throughout our professional career and we have a great story to tell at design conferences. The true question, though, is this: did it make you gun-shy? Are you afraid to step out with a potential monster because that failure scarred you? All of us have creative scars, but monster hunters are able to see them as badges of honor rather than reminders of pain. If we can accept that what we do brings the potential of hurt, that every time we generate ideas we’re putting ourselves on a wall for the criticism of others, if our egos can take the failures in search of the monsters, there’s a far greater chance at finding them.

Stefan Mumaw is the Creative Director and Provider of All That Rocks at Reign, a Kansas City-based ad agency. He has authored several books, the most recent being Chasing the Monster Idea.

Get back on the horse
To find monster ideas, we have to be willing to take a few faceplants.
Photo by: Margo Harrison

Quick Tips
1. Fail early in the process to ease the consequence and provide time to adjust.

2. Learn to fail often by taking small risks throughout the process. Success in these small risks will ease you into taking larger, more strategic risks as you become accustomed to the consequence and reaction.

3. Fearlessness is an acquired taste but one that leads to more monster ideas. Learn to become fearless by putting your pride aside for the cause of chasing the monster.

Dig Deeper!
1. For stories of design’s elite and the failures that shaped them, pick up a copy of Steven Heller’s book Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failure, and Lessons Learned

2. Watch and listen to the great Milton Glaser describe fear in the creative process in this intimate and telling video

3. Read all about the 7 characteristics of monster ideas in Stefan Mumaw’s book Chasing the Monster Idea: The Marketer’s Almanac for Predicting Idea Epicness

4. More books from Stefan Mumaw: Caffeine for the Creative Mind and Caffeine for the Creative Team

2 thoughts on “Generate Monster Ideas by Generating Monster Failures

  1. Gary Meacher

    With this in mind, how can the younger generation trend back to learning through failure? There has been a rash of giving kids positive reinforcement for just trying. Sporting events no longer keep score and everyone is a winner in the end. Science Fairs give ribbons just for entering. Homework assignments get credit just for attempts. Somewhere along the line we have become afraid to tell someone they are not good at something. People need to know these things so they know what to work on. Perhaps more importantly they need to be prepared for disappointment. Maybe this all started with the self-esteem issues in kids? We don’t want to hurt their feelings for fear of damaging their psyche…How can we walk this line of learning through failure without making the struggling ones hate themselves?

  2. Stefan

    Gary, I think it starts with redefining failure. We have defined failure as the absence of success when in reality, growth in anything is achieved just as much through failure, sometimes more, as success. Celebrating failure as part of the process redefines failure for not only our kids, but everyone.

    At Reign, we have what we call “Fail Day” twice a year, where we take a day and fondly reminisce about the epic failures we’ve encountered in the last 6 months. This makes us do two things: 1) It makes us keep track, which makes us take account of those failures and what we learned from them, and 2) It removes the stigma that they are to be avoided at all costs. Don’t get me wrong, we don’t want to fail at everything we do, that would be, well, unprofitable. But I want my team to know that they have the room to take shots early, often and fearlessly in the name of growth. It’s amazing when failures aren’t chided but rather celebrated, how much everyone gains. In my opinion, “Fail Day” should not only be a creative agency initiative, but a life initiative.