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Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction

Transforming infrastructure through smarter information

This month’s CSIC Smart Infrastructure Blog explores the role of failure and risk in innovation. Reflecting on the ambition of the HS2 programme to deliver a world-class customer service connecting communities and driving business throughout the UK, Hassan Butt, HS2 Graduate Innovation Analyst, and Andrew Pestana, HS2 Innovation Strategy Lead, set out why innovation is not just important, it is essential.

The Innovate@HS2 initiative focuses on driving new ideas and ways of working by identifying, trialling, and adopting new techniques and technologies across the HS2 programme and aims to leave a legacy of innovative people and ways of working. This blog was written following the HS2 Innovation Engine Week (IEW), held in March this year, where HS2, its supply chain and partners showcased, discussed, and delivered insights and thinking about innovation and how we apply it in our day-to-day work.

Should we not be looking to actively learn from our failures and become more comfortable that we will fail? Could we set ourselves on a path to success by taking time to critically analyse and understand the reasons why we fail? Are we better thinking of failure as a way of learning? HS2 Innovation Engine Week

At our IEW we were reminded by Aileen Thompson (Director, Communications and Stakeholder Management at HS2) of American businessman and former President of IBM, Thomas Watson’s statement that: “If you want to double your success, you need to double your failure.” This got us thinking about failure and what it meant to us. For many of us failure is something that has always followed us like a dark shadow, whether it was at school, university or early in our careers. Failure is often synonymous with a negative experience and something we are conditioned to avoid. A sense of dread and foreboding associated with failure can be so great at times that it is easy to give up on our dreams. Where does this insecurity come from, and is there a way to embrace failure and leverage this to our advantage as innovators?

Fear is an instinct to which we owe our survival and yet at the same time fear is often highly irrational. In a world where many successful people have prospered because of their failures, is this because they have become more comfortable in managing this fear or have they simply given themselves permission to fail? Have they better understood how to define failure as learning and that a failure to innovate is a failure in itself? At the recent HS2 IEW, Thomas Faulkner (Executive Vice President, Skanska) suggested that a lot of valuable learning is down to failure but this, in his experience, could only be embraced once trust had been established, often through long-term relationships. Embrace the learning!

Throughout history there are many individuals who have treated setbacks as learning, experiencing failure not once but multiple times before they became successful. James Dyson for instance, took five years and 5,126 failed prototypes to develop the world’s first bagless vacuum cleaner. Ten years later Dyson set up his own manufacturing facility, because other manufacturers wouldn’t produce his vacuum. Now he has the best-selling vacuum in the world and according to Forbes, in 2021 his net worth was $6.9 Billion (James Dyson, 2021).

What sets James Dyson apart from us mere mortals who can only dream of becoming the next innovation superstar?

Is it possible that the real issue isn’t with failure itself but rather our response to failure? Construction is an example of an industry where failure has been dissociated from learning.  Newspapers are littered with headlines that criticise large programmes, we’re constantly reminded of failure and, as a result, driven to a position where we actively avoid any chance of failure. This risk aversion is becoming an area of genuine failure, as construction productivity fails to grow at the rate of many other industries. Should we not be looking to actively learn from our failures and become more comfortable that we will fail? Could we set ourselves on a path to success by taking time to critically analyse and understand the reasons why we fail? Are we better thinking of failure as a way of learning – a First Attempt In Learning , as suggested by Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, Former President of India, and quoted by HS2 Innovation Manager Heather Donald during the IEW?

What happens when we apply this thinking outside of construction and in the high-performance world of professional sport? Every millisecond of an individual performance is analysed and dissected. Every action or lack of action is understood and responded to in real time as well as the Monday after the ‘big match’. There is no place to hide. Failure is part of the very fabric of the sporting amphitheatre. The most successful athletes are the ones that don’t fear failure. Quite the opposite, they look to actively embrace and learn from it. Failure in sport is measured in millimetres and can be the difference between winning a gold medal or being a runner-up. What sets the very best apart from the average is their ability to recognise and accept that they will fail and that they will learn from the inevitable. Applied in the context of a major Infrastructure programme, Dick Elsy (CEO High Value Manufacturing Catapult) shared his thoughts at the HS2 IEW – that if we want to enable innovation to succeed, we need to be prepared to take risks but to fail fast if there are problems.

In summary, the one recognisable guiding behaviour that sets apart the best from the rest is an insatiable appetite to learn from mistakes and not repeat them. The high-performing teams and individuals who succeed are the ones who are comfortable in the knowledge that they will fail. What is non-negotiable is the repetition of failure!

As we move forward in a world of change and large-scale disruption, the words of some of the most notable disruptors of our time couldn’t be more pertinent:

• “Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.” – Elon Musk

• “It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” – Bill Gates

• “You have to be willing to act. You have to be willing to crash and burn, to fail, or you won’t get very far.” – Steve Jobs

In construction we have arguably created an unhelpful separation between failure and learning.  Reclassification and acceptance of failure is an essential part of our journey towards innovation and by considering a more learning-based approach we need to move to a space of learning-based innovation!

Lastly it would be remiss not to consider the words of Dr Jennifer Schooling (Director of the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction, University of Cambridge) chairing a panel at the HS2 IEW: “If it’s something that has no risk of failure, it isn’t an innovation!”



James Dyson (2021). Retrieved from Forbes: