Guest Post: Failure Should Be Mindful Not Mindless, by Chris Wasden

Last week I did an interview for a Podcast with Dr. Travis Good. He kicked off the interview by asking the following question:

In your book, you talk about failure being the spark that ignites the innovation cycle. Since more than half of all digital health companies fail in the first two years, are you suggesting that these founders get right back on the saddle and develop their next idea? 

Here are my thoughts on failure.

There are two different kinds of failure: mindless and mindful. The difference between mindful and mindless failure is the former occurs based upon continuous questioning and testing of hypotheses and learning where you were wrong in your assumptions, the later occurs because you failed to really question and think before you leapt off and started your venture. The cost of developing solutions, such as apps, has collapsed in recent years and is now so cheap that we don’t have to think before we start building something.

Rediscover and Liberate Your Creative Genius

I think the key point about failing is that it forces learning in powerful ways that then leads to new actions that are generally more successful because they overcome the failure that was at the root cause of the problem. If we are more mindful about our failures we focus on identifying the root cause of a problem we need to solve by addressing the underlying failure and pain that caused it. We then create a hypothesis as to how we can innovate to remove the tension that the failure and pain cause, we then test that hypothesis as quickly as we can, fail fast, quickly learn from that failure, adjust our hypothesis, modify our innovation, and then try again.

It is interesting to see how the country of Singapore is applying this approach to the teaching of math. In a recent article that outlined their approach, teachers purposely design in failure in to the teaching of math. That is, they give the kinds a math problem to solve before they teach them how to solve it, requiring the student to try their best with their current knowledge. Then after they fail, the teachers instruct the students as to the best way to solve the problem. This approach causes the students to be more engaged in learning because now they know why they need to apply this new approach to solving a math problem and they learn it faster and remember it longer. This forces mindful failure.

Recommended Reading: Tension: The Energy of Innovation by Chris Wasden and Mitch Wasden 

The problem with the 70,000+ digital health apps and devices out there is that most of their efforts seem to be mindless. That is, they don’t really understand the root cause of the problem, they are not innovating in ways that remove tension, and they are failing without learning much because they never had a clear hypothesis to begin with.

To really become innovators we must first acknowledge that we don’t know much, we are not the experts we think we are, and we need to undertake exploration and discovery to better understand the problem we want to solve – to quote Einstein “The important thing is to never stop questioning.” This means we must apply the three process of innovation to interact with many people in the world that share a variety of experiences and opinions about the problem we are solving and then select those ideas that seem to make the most sense to solve the problem and design an experiment to test our hypothesis.

It is estimated that 80% of all digital health apps that are downloaded are used only once and then deleted, and only 16% are used twice.  Another studyindicated that of the 43,000 digital health apps only half had any legitimate health function. Five apps accounted for 15% of all downloads. Over 90% of the apps tested scored a 40 out of 100 on the IMS Institute of Healthcare Informatics quality scale.

I have personally looked at and evaluated hundreds of digital health apps and companies with my students at the Sorenson Center for Discovery & Innovation and I would argue that the reason most of them fail is that they haven’t applied the Innovation Cycle to innovate by understanding the root cause of the problem (failure and pain). They didn’t identify a key failure and important pain point that needed to be addressed. They failed to innovate in such a way that they could eliminate the tension that arose from the failure and pain. Unless these failed digital health companies have learned something valuable from their failure, then they shouldn’t get back in the game and perpetuate their mindless failure. If you want to play the innovation game, then apply the Innovation Cycle to fail mindfully.

It is estimated that there are over 400 diabetic apps you can download from the app stores, and over 99% of them are awful because they have weak value propositions (or more likely none at all) and don’t follow what I call the Six Principles of Digital Success to mindfully develop their app and business. They lack Integration into the lifestyle and workflow, they are not Interoperableacross multiple technologies, they are not Intelligent in guiding new behaviors, they are not Social to include broader communities, they do not deliverOutcomes of improvement and they are not Engaging enough to bring you back again and again.

I am familiar with one of the best diabetic apps in the market that follows all six of these principles. Unlike nearly all of the diabetic apps out there, WellDoc , has applied mindful failure and has invented not just new technologies but also a new business model to increase its success in the market. Despite its innovative efforts, WellDoc still struggles because of the inertia of the status quo in healthcare that rejects novel solutions. Healthcare is the toughest market in the world to innovate in, which means that you must be even more effective at applying mindful failure than in any other market.

As I wrote in my blog last week, I am now a mentor in an NSF I-corp innovation program. As part of this program we must do 100 face-to-face interviews with prospective stakeholders in seven weeks. The purpose of these interviews is to apply the three process of innovation to push us towards mindful failure. I can guaranty you that the vast majority (like over 90%) of these digital health companies, which create apps that are never used, didn’t do 100 face-to-face interviews, the failed to seek many points of view that would cause rejection and tension to their ideas in order to improve them before they built their product and launched their business.

Innovation requires failure, but let’s have it be mindful not mindless by never stop questioning.


chris arms folded_croppedDr. Chris Wasden is the Executive Director of the Sorenson Center for Discovery and Innovation at the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah. He is also an Associated Executive director at the Center for Medical Innovation at the medical school, and a professor in the Entrepreneurship and Strategy Department. He also continues to work with PwC where he was the Global Healthcare Innovation Leader. As a global thought leader on Digital Health and the role that Social, Mobile, Analytic and Cloud technologies are transforming healthcare and other industries he has written and published over 60 articles and reports on the topic, and he speaks at over 30 events each year on how Digital Health is transforming the practice of medicine, the delivery of care, and the creation of an entirely new wellness paradigm based upon objective measures that lead to greater engagement and changes in human behavior. He is a named inventor on 20 issued patents and has been a leader in 11 different startups where he developed many of his ideas around the innovation cycle and lifecycle and how fast, frequent, frugal, and failure accelerates innovation. Dr. Wasden has a doctorate in human and organizational learning from George Washington University in Washington, DC, an MBA from the UCLA Anderson School, and bachelor degrees in accounting (BS) and Asian studies (BA) from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

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