The Art of Failing Well

Innovation City recently partnered with LevelUp to host a panel discussion titled “The Art of Failing Well.” The event tackled a topic often downplayed in the competitive startup world: learning valuable lessons from failures. It brought together entrepreneurs and industry leaders for a lively discussion on extracting value from setbacks.

Nestled amidst the steely canyons of innovation hubs, a truth often goes unspoken: failing isn’t fatal, it’s fashionable. At least, that was the mantra emanating from “The Art of Failing Well” event. The air crackled with a nervous energy, a delightful mix of wide-eyed optimism and the steely resolve of those who’d tasted the bitter pill of entrepreneurial misfires.

Renier Kriel, the ever-quotable guru behind The Open Letter, kicked things off with a dose of refreshing pragmatism. Failures, he declared, are not harbingers of doom, but rather overflowing treasure chests of “observations.” These hard-won insights, gleaned from the wreckage of past endeavours, become the raw material for future triumphs. But here’s the rub: observations gather dust unless meticulously analysed and transformed into actionable knowledge.

Enter Regan Adams, the sharp-witted CEO of RCS Ltd., who challenged the very definition of “failing.” “We churn through 60,000 thoughts a day,” he quipped, “and a staggering 70% are negative!” For Adams, failing isn’t the act of stumbling, it’s the passive acceptance of negativity. Failing well, then, becomes the art of “discovering well,” actively seeking out new information and transforming missteps into springboards for innovation.

The conversation then pivoted towards the ever-present dance with risk. Large organisations, Adams argued, often resemble beached whales, suffocating under the weight of risk aversion. Paul Nel, LevelUp’s Innovation Studio Lead and seasoned entrepreneur, underscored the importance of metrics: “If it’s not measurable,” he stressed, “it’s not worth doing!” Metrics, he argued, act as early warning systems for potential failures.

Startups, on the other hand, reveled in a different kind of freedom. Kriel highlighted their agility, their ability to “just simply start” and adapt with the nimbleness of a flea on a hot tin roof. This agility, however, had its limitations. As Kriel wryly observed, once a startup gains traction, the initial freedom to experiment hardens into a rigid form. Imagine, he said, trying to change the format of a magazine with 10,000 loyal subscribers – a cautionary tale for those who mistake initial success for unfettered flexibility.

The evening wasn’t all about navel-gazing introspection. There were practical takeaways too. Building a strong network, Kriel advised, was akin to constructing a sturdy life raft – a diverse group of advisors could help navigate the treacherous currents of innovation. Adams emphasised that distribution networks are crucial for getting products to market. Finally, he cautioned that customer needs are constantly evolving, urging businesses to be prepared to adapt their strategies.

Perhaps the most poignant piece of advice came from Adams himself, emphasising the importance of staying ahead of the curve. Customer needs change rapidly, he warned, and businesses must be prepared to adapt their strategies to remain relevant. This agility, he argued, is essential to avoid becoming yesterday’s news.

Innovation City’s “Art of Failing Well” wasn’t just about learning from mistakes, it was about embracing them. It was about transforming the inevitable fumbles of the entrepreneurial journey into stepping stones for future success. In the glittering heart of the Mother City, it seems, a new philosophy is taking root: failing well might just be the secret sauce for achieving the impossible.

Sandra Buckingham is a Freelance Journalist and current Head of Marketing at Innovation City