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Harvard innovators urged to embrace ‘the F-word’

“Hi” is the moniker attached to Harvard University’s innovation lab. The I-Lab, as it’s more commonly known, is the heart of the Crimson’s system of cellular ideations, collaborations and capitalizations.

Within the multifunctional building on Western Ave., a stone’s throw away from Harvard’s Business School, is an idea incubator where theories are nurtured, circulated and tested by students, mentors and venture capitalists. Intended to advance innovation further and faster, would-be entrepreneurs are welcomed to participate in hack-a-thons, and seek one-on-one advice from seasoned serial innovators and legal experts.

The collaborative lab has been welcoming idea generators to work synergistically across the University’s diverse disciples since Nov. 18, 2011. To date, the I-Lab estimates it’s been visited more than 202,000 times and has hosted 3,800 events.

Successful launch of innovation is the business and expectation of the I-Lab. However, Matthew Guidarelli, Assistant Director of Social Impact and Cultural Entrepreneurship at the incubator, proposes students consider the alternative benefits of “The ‘F’ Word.”

His analysis suggests an objective of the I-Lab should be to encourage innovators to explore the positive psychological impacts of “failure” as a normal part of success. Guidarelli, known as a leader of programming at the lab, helps students across the Harvard community coalesce business ventures. At a meeting of the minds on April 6, he suggested learning to fail is a developmental skill to practice.

The event began as participants were asked to reflect, then candidly explain to tablemates the miserable sensation felt after a significant failure. “Owning it” is the first of four tenants, Guidarelli said, to embrace when it comes to successfully moving past “The ‘F’ Word. ”

He said as ideas fail, innovators need to accept a wounding sense of vulnerability and acknowledge the humiliation of having tried and failed. He believes it’s important to express to one’s self, friends, teammates and investors the experience of loss, and then move on to the next ideation.

Guidarelli sited James Dyson’s 5,600 iterations of a vacuum as proof failure can be part of success. Dyson’s vacuums had been preceded by failed attempts to invent a fiberglass hoverboard and a better wheelbarrel. The eventual vacuum design of Sir James Dyson has earned the innovator an estimated $2 billion.

A second story of success post-failure was of Stanford computer scientist and Internet entrepreneur Brian Acton. In 2009, after having his application to work at Facebook rejected, Guidarelli said, a disappointed Acton posted on his Twitter account, ” Facebook turned me down… looking forward to life’s next adventure!” What happened next? In 2014, Mark Zuckerberg ultimately bought “WhatsApp”, the mobile messaging company developed by Brian Acton and his collaborator Jan Koum, for $19 billion. Had the men been successfully employed by Facebook they wouldn’t have been free to develop the popular app.

Guidarelli said immediate public announcement of disappointment helps diminish the isolating sense of failure, allowing one to more quickly pivot to the next phase of creativity. Rather than wallow in demoralizing behaviors, owning failure allows one to re-frame loss into a potentially positive construal, adding narrative that can change failure into a transient setback.

The second step of “The’ F’ Word” lecture required inter-personal reflection. While drawing concentric circles on the black board, Guidarelli asked attendees to imagine who is in the epicenter of their life, thereafter recognizing the influence of that person. If the value of the epicenter is positive irrespective of failure, the innovator tends to evaluate business failures to be of less significance. Moving away from the epicenter, one must consider the value of affiliations with other associates, determining who is uplifting and energizing or demoralizing and detrimental to success. The key to that exercise was to recognize who to surround one’s self with, and who should be jettisoned from your life’s circle.

Articulation of potential pluses and minuses of a business plan is the third ideal in failure management. Rapid cue detection of assets and impediments allows for quick redirection away from trouble and towards a goal. The lecture further stressed practicing the mantra “If this, then that.” In many ways it’s similar to the Boy Scouts model of always being prepared for success and failure. The lecture also suggested innovators remain determined to maintain “a keep going attitude,” especially in the face of disappointment.

The final tenant of the evening was perhaps the most controversial. Guidarelli suggested innovators be fearless and set themselves up for failure. Pushing boundaries into a nebulous zone can be a desirable option for business, provided there will be no known negative impact of family relationships. He suggests pressing beyond a comfort zone, choosing instead a direction where one has no clue what will happen next. Sometimes, when venture annexes the power of creativity, ground-breaking innovations are born.

Developing a sense of resilience to failure is essential to the spirit of innovation, said Guidarelli, who compares the process to building muscle mass. He suggests participating in confidence-boosting exercises, experiencing any unfamiliar activity, without obvious negative social or business repercussion, is often a learning experience that psychologically rewards risk and failure without consequence. The resilience training exercise underscores failure can be fun and temporal.

The lecture concluded reminding innovators to see “The ‘F’ Word” as a positive construal that incubates ideas in the process of success.

Guidarelli’s final note written on the Hi I-Lab chalk board: I’m-Possible!

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