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Smart Failure

Creative confidence is being comfortable with failure. We will help children to experience the creative process in a way that helps them overcome the fear of failure that holds so many of us back. Getting it wrong is getting it right.

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"If you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original."
Sir Ken Robinson

"To avoid situations in which you might make mistakes may be the biggest mistake of all." 
Peter McWilliams

"Every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward."
Thomas A. Edison (1847 – 1931)

We penalise mistakes.  We highlight them with red ink, which asks as a permanent reminder not to try again.  The effect builds up over time - eroding your confidence - until you give up altogether.

As we go through our lives, the social pressure for success increases and therefore the cost of failure increases too.  If an idea might work, there's a chance it might not, so we tend to hold back.  We do what we've always done.  It's safer that way.

Failure needs a rebrand.


The idea.


Smart Failure.

Rebranding the idea of failure to build the confidence of young people and help them unlock their potential for creativity.

Through a series of hands-on experiences, young people will use design thinking to solve real-world problems, and in doing so, will begin to understand and master their creative confidence.

Through a supportive and playful environment, we will make clear the need for failure as part of any successful creative process.  Getting it wrong is getting it right.


Our values.


Everything we do will be built on a system of values that ladder back to our vision.

  1. Independent thinking.  Owning your creative confidence is personal.
  2. Experience, not theory.  Lasting and meaningful outcomes through practice.
  3. Empathy and trust.  We know it's hard, so we'll catch you when you fall.


Our personality.


Our values are expressed by the way we behave.  Our personality is the thing that we become known for.

  1. Straight talking - we tell it like it is.
  2. Enduring - we start and keep going.
  3. Dependable - we are always there.
  4. Light-hearted - if it's not fun we're not doing it right.


Our process.


Smart Failure starts with a real problem (chosen by  participants) , then completes four stages, modelled on a typical creative process:

Look - what do we know?
List - what does good look like?
Try - how might we?
Test - what works?

At each stage, we will emphasise and reward Smart Failure, reinforcing that getting it wrong is getting it right.

Look - see differently - find new ways to look at things.
List - decide what it's not - make some space.
Try - don't fall in love with your ideas - have new ones.
Test - let things be wrong - it's just not working yet.

These experiences will end with a retrospective session that will help participants to reflect on what they have learned and what this might mean for their lives.  We'll give each graduate a small token that can act as a reminder of both the process and how they felt about being a Smart Failure.  

They'll be part of the club - hopefully for the rest of their lives.


Example session.


Below is a rough outline for a session that I designed and had tested.  We introduced a simple Smart Failure points system (with a prize of tea and cake for hitting a target) as a way to help kids engage with the process and feel less self conscious about their contribution as they were working towards a common goal.

Results were good.  Lots of participation (achieved 3x target points), plus some good suggestions/ideas.  Unexpected benefits in that the kids were able to relate the process to their language learning generally (being relaxed about failure, building on contributions from others, etc.).  Not sure if the points system is right though (seems contrived somehow), but it definitely helped with motivation and confidence to participate.

Needs more testing - ideally with a group that is known to lack confidence.

PROBLEM: How might we make our classrooms better for learning languages?

Facilitator explains the idea of Smart Failure to the group. They need to be clear that students can make a genuine contribution and that the session can not work without their participation.  The aim is to establish trust and openness from the beginning. 

Part 1 (Look) 15 minutes
Students visit adjacent classrooms to observe lessons in progress. They have to write down everything that they notice about the environment and how it is being used.
Smart Failure - 1 point for every observation written down.

Part 2 (List) 15 minutes
Back together, students call out the things they have observed, first ‘Problems’ then ‘Insights’.
Smart Failure - 3 points for every observation called out by a student.

Part 3a (Try) 15 minutes
Students brainstorm ideas to address problems or build on insights (e.g. how might we..?). They are encouraged to create lots of ideas, defer judgement, build on each others ideas, suggest wild ideas, etc.
Smart Failure - 10 points for every idea .

Part 3b (Try) 15 minutes
Students ‘dot vote’ their favourite ideas in silence (3 votes each). Short discussion. Students super-vote their favourite ideas (1 vote each). The idea with the most votes is tested next lesson.

Part 1a (Test) Before the lesson
Teacher prepares for the lesson using the most popular idea to improve the classroom environment. Students given opportunity to help create the prototype.

Part 1a (Test) 45 minutes
Teacher conducts lesson as planned.

Part 1a (Test) 15 minutes
Teacher conducts lesson retrospective to evaluate the idea (e.g. If we did this every lesson, what would we keep, stop, start?). Previous ideas can be suggested again as things that we should ‘start’. 
Smart Failure - 3 points for every suggestion called out by a student.

*New* Refinement question: What will the future look like with your idea in it?

If young people can't overcome the fear of failure, or the fear of being seen as different, they can't really get off the starting blocks when it comes to creativity. It's really just a frame of mind. When you understand that creativity is a skill that you can get better at, it becomes a source of great enjoyment, rather than a stressful and self-conscious process that other people are generally better at. I know from personal experience that this is quite a powerful and liberating realisation, so this is really just about unlocking that thought for other people more quickly than it happened for me. The experiential nature of this idea is designed to help young people to gain a deeper and more lasting understanding of their own creative potential, with greater levels of confidence and a better understanding of the role of failure within creativity. The branding reinforces this and makes the whole thing that bit more memorable. This is the first step towards a more creative outlook on life. It's impossible to imagine where it might lead, but I like to think we could 'light the blue touch paper' for a few people. I just hope we can nudge them into more creative thinking with skills and tools that they can use throughout their life and maybe even share with others. Other people talking about Smart Failure is almost enough in itself. I guess that's where *you* come in. :-)

In this challenge, we want to create ideas with young people, not for them. Outline how you’re planning to involve young people or other end-users (parents, teachers, etc) in designing, iterating or testing your idea during the Ideas phase.

This is tricky. I've tried various ways to get access to groups of young people in a way that they can make a meaningful contribution to the forming of this idea, but this is still a work in progress. I could do with some help here.

How might you envision your idea spreading across geographies or cultures so that it inspires young people around the world to cultivate their creative confidence?

You don't need much. No special equipment or training, just the framework to work into (Look, List, Try, Test) and someone to facilitate the process. Everyone can be creative after all, we just forget, or never get told in the first place. The bi-product is creative confidence, as we'll really just be making the creative process more accessible. I'm hoping it'll get used to solve some real problems, then get passed on to other people as a way to bring young people together. The schools in the UK have 'citizenship' weeks (normally in the summer) that I think this would be perfect for, so this could be a way to routinely get this kind of thinking into the mainstream.

What skills, input or guidance would you like to receive from the OpenIDEO community to help you build out or refine your idea further?

Obviously, I'll need people that can help to design the experiences at each stage of the process, and then ideally people that are willing to test the idea and report back. Getting the branding right is going to be important too, so some help with that would be appreciated. For me, the 'double-diamond' has always been a really memorable symbol of the creative process, so just getting something like this into more people's heads might help remind them of their creative potential too. I also think the physical artefacts are important, as they give people ownership of their own Smart Failure, which might create a bit of 'loss aversion' around giving this up again. Any ideas about how to do this in a simple and cost-effective way would be magic.


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really like this idea ! I wish i had this time of thing in my classroom as I was insecure about speaking in front of my peers when it came to do it. This is common in most schools and I think building on this can help children growing up to be more confident when it comes to presentations.

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