Role of Smartfailing in Improving University Innovation Strategy

by Melba Kurman

Role of Smartfailing in Improving University Innovation StrategyStefan Lindegaard uses a term called “smartfailing” to describe a new approach to failure. A smartfailing organization, when things go wrong (as they frequently will), does not focus its energy on assigning blame and doling out consequences. Instead, the smartfailing organization uses failure to become better. When an organization embraces smartfailing, it de-stigmatizes failure internally and uses failure as an opportunity to learn and to find a better course.

The April issue of the Harvard Business Review is dedicated to learning from failure. Story after story from corporate thought leaders seems to indicate that companies are taking steps towards viewing failure as something to be understood and learned from rather than punished or suppressed. If corporations are learning to learn from failure, why not universities? It seems that universities should be even more comfortable with the idea that failure is a learning opportunity. After all, U.S. research universities are under less short-term pressure to make a profit. At least in theory, universities seem like natural smartfailers since university culture celebrates open-ended basic scientific inquiry and academic freedom. Yet, in my experience, many university work environments are not yet ready to embrace smartfailing.

A good starting place to launch a smartfailing university culture would be inside the business unit that manages the university’s patent portfolio, aka the technology transfer unit. Given the endless public debates on improving the public uptake of innovative university research, in a perfect world, right now, the university technology transfer unit would already be a hotbed of courageous and well-supported smartfailing. With some no doubt inspiring exceptions that I would love to hear about, for the most part, the culture inside many university technology transfer business units is not yet failure-friendly.

By this I do not mean that internal and external stakeholders do not perceive that failure is taking place. Nor is it because the technology transfer staff aren’t ready to learn from their mistakes — they are. Instead, resistance to smartfailing appears to be the product of several converging forces at play in the university’s cultural climate that when combined, make people reluctant to admit to failure. For example:

  • a hierachical, slow-moving non-profit environment where people with long memories tend to spend years in the same job
  • an unclear and unrealistically broad tech transfer mission that invites a disproportionate amount of sub-optimal outcomes, creating pressure on staff to downplay negative outcomes lest they overshadow the wins
  • a bureacratic and old-fashioned organizational culture that believes that admitting failure is equal to admitting fault
  • a lack of a firm system of performance measurement that enables under-performing “spin doctor” types to stay in their posts far longer than they should.

Creating a psychologically safe environment for failure

University administrators should begin by inviting their technology transfer staff to fail smarter. Creating an organizational culture where smartfailing can flourish relies on the powers-that-be establishing what’s called a “psychologically safe environment.” Amy Edmondson, in a Harvard Business Review article entitled “Learning from Failure,” describes the steps that leaders can take to reinforce a culture that “counteracts the blame game and makes people feel both comfortable with and responsible for surfacing and learning from failure.” Edmondson lays out a spectrum of reasons to failure, ranging from the not good (or “blameworthy”) to the appropriate (“praiseworthy”).

According to Edmonson’s spectrum, poor reasons for failure are the ones we are already all-too-familiar with: individual deviance, inattention to the job, and individual lack of ability. However, heading towards the praiseworthy end of the spectrum, we encounter better reasons for failure: task challenges, process breakdown, insufficient clarity about future events, hypothesis and exploratory testing. It’s too easy to follow up a failure by blaming the individual. Viewing failure from a systemic perspective would help us build the foundation for a better, more up-to-date university technology commercialization business model.

Like any business, sometimes outcomes in the world of a university technology transfer unit don’t go as well as they could. Typical failure points include companies that decide they don’t like the university’s licensing terms and fees (process breakdown). Smarfailing would focus on learning from the setback to identify better licensing methods more appropriate for today’s product development environment. Describing and sparking industry interest in university inventions is another constant challenge (task challenge). Are there better marketing techniques to explore? Assessing the commercial value of an early-stage but promising university invention remains a black art (insufficient clarity about future events). Do the patents that cost a lot of money but never got licensed have anything in common? Another challenge is on-campus outreach: why won’t university inventors attend technology transfer educational events? What would incent faculty to take a more active role in finding industrial applications for their inventions?

The benefits of failing smarter.

  1. Stop blaming the tech transfer staff for not having the right skills. University technology transfer staff do not get enough credit for the good work they do. If an under-performing technology transfer strategy is inviting the ire of stakeholders, the first easy target for criticism is the tech transfer staff member. That’s not fair and frequently not accurate (and certainly not constructive).
  2. Sift out the competent workers and administrators from the not-so-competent. Both failure and success are difficult to quantify in a university technology transfer environment in which goals are vague and there’s no bottom line. Viewing failure on a spectrum differentiates between individual incompetence and failure that stems from systemic weaknesses.
  3. Stop under-reporting failure and manufacturing the perception of success. In environments where discussing failure is taboo, the game goes to the person most adept at moving shells around to present the perception that things are going great, even when they’re not. The Administrative Shell game invites mis-directed staff energy at best, administrative corruption at worst. Not making it safe to report failure in an matter-of-fact way way punishes honest employees who want to report real results, and rewards employees who are comfortable with subterfuge and sub-par results.
  4. “Failure deniers” need to be snapped out of denial. Too frequently, a common response to critics is that the critic “does understand what the tech transfer office is trying to do.” Dismissing critics as ignorant not only demeans the stakeholder, it shuts down exploration of potentially valid and valuable alternative methods to get things done. Innovative business strategies rest on the foundation of open-mindedness about what’s not working well, combined with a willingness to learn. Assuming that stakeholders who question the current process simply don’t know anything about university technology commercialization keeps the tech transfer office frozen in place for that much longer.
  5. Save money by offering fewer irrelevant technology transfer events. The world of marketing innovative technology has changed dramatically over the past ten years. However, some university technology transfer units continue to spend the bulk of their marketing budget on hosting in-person events aimed at attracting venture capital or fostering “networking.” These events don’t scale and the key players don’t have time to come. In my experience in a large university based in a rural region, most tech transfer event attendees were graduate students and local attorneys that dropped by to pass out business cards. In other words, a snooze fest. By honestly admitting failure and not pointing the finger at the skill of the event coordinator, university technology transfer units could better spend their marketing dollars on globally scalable ways to present university inventions to the right eyeballs.
  6. Better understand the motivations of university faculty. A common complaint is that university scientists aren’t interested in helping the technology transfer office find companies to license their patented invention. During my time inside a university technology transfer office, in staff meetings, we did not address the fact that perhaps faculty goals and priorities were mis-aligned with ours. Instead, we staff were directed to focus on “the Porsche effect.” The thinking behind the Porsche effect goes like this: faculty haven’t yet seen any of their colleagues strike it rich. If just one university scientist gets rich from a patent, then their colleagues would stampede the tech transfer office and staff would never struggle to attract faculty mindshare again. Smartfailing would unearth the fact that it’s not a matter of attracting the interest of individual faculty (that’s a blame-oriented approach), it’s a matter of overcoming mis-aligned incentives.
  7. Figure out better ways to share university inventions with businesses. When a promising licensing deals falls apart, it could be for a number of reasons. Blaming the companies for being greedy or unrealistic isn’t failing smart. Nor is it productive to blame the responsible licensing staff person. By figuring out what went wrong, it becomes possible to learn from the failure and hopefully change what went wrong.
  8. Explore alternative models for university technology transfer. If a motivated staff member is willing to collect data on failed license deals or other types of failures, why not let that staff member put together a proposal for a small-scale pilot to try a new approach? It costs only time, and the pay-off could be significant. Perhaps most importantly, encouraging a fact-based and rational approach to seeking alternative strategies makes the job more interesting and steers staff energy in a positive direction.

Every significant failure deserves a post-mortem that delves into the underlying systemic and strategic obstacles. Amy Edmondson wraps up her article with this:

“The courage to confront our own and others’ imperfections is crucial to solving the apparent contradictions of wanting to neither discourage the reporting of problems nor to create an environment in which anything goes. This means that managers must ask employees to be brave and speak up — and must not respond by expressing anger or strong disapproval of what may at first appear to be incompetence. More often than we realize, complex systems are at work behind organizational failures, and their lessons and improvement opportunities are lost when conversation is stifled.”

The beauty of learning to fail smarter is that failure is already taking place: the lessons are already there, waiting for intelligent interpretation. Failing smarter means spending less energy putting lipstick on the pig, and putting more energy into finding better ways to get university research into the hands of people who can benefit from it.

Editor’s Note: You may also enjoy – Don’t Fail Fast – Learn Fast by Braden Kelley

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Melba KurmanMelba Kurman writes and speaks about innovative tech transfer from university research labs to the commercial marketplace. Melba is the president of Triple Helix Innovation, a consulting firm dedicated to improving innovation partnerships between companies and universities.

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  1. What I’ve found from working in health research is that failure just means a fresh base for more research. When research is built on ideas that connect divergent concepts it’s easy to fail because you’re working at the edges of knowledge. I’ve never worried too much about over-analysing what went wrong and what could be changed, but on how the knowledge gained can lead to a new solution, or better still, a new project. This way is much better for the researchers and their support staff as it leaves people open to create right now rather than be dragged down with negative criticisms and dour predictions. If there was a good project plan, managed well throughout, it’s much easier to see the stage in the project that lead to “failure” and not blame individuals. That way I guess it becomes “smartfailing”.

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