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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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