Our instructors are pressing my classmates and me to embrace failure. “Failure supports learning,” they tell us. “Failure inspires insight. Failure yields clarity.” My classmates and I are working out what all of this means for our d.school projects, our home organizations and our development as design thinkers.

Like many people, I’ve spent a lot of time and energy avoiding failure, and the anxiety and frustration that often follow. At Stanford, I’m being asked to reach a level of comfort with those feelings because setbacks are a crucial part of building “creative confidence” — the self-assurance supporting a person’s ability to invent and innovate. So, as I work with UWSEM staff and partners to further our exciting work, I’ll need to run toward the outstretched arms of failure and help to nurture our courage to produce and test new ideas.


Learning from Failure and Building Creative Confidence

A couple weeks ago, I led a team tasked with solving the hypothetical problem of redefining the Stanford dining experience for vegan students. The team broke into three smaller workgroups to develop three prototypes (in this case, an outline of a public relations strategy) to change perceptions of veganism on campus.

I can’t emphasize this enough: prototyping is a messy, iterative process. During the prototyping stage, we’re expected to fail early and often so we can usher in more meaningful, insightful and imaginative ideas.

Some of us sprinted toward a brick wall of failure and, I’m happy to report, lived to educate the rest of us. One group developed and tested a racy calendar mockup featuring “sexy vegans.”  After testing the idea with students, the group returned to the larger team humbled by some tough feedback. “Sexy wouldn’t work here,” students told them. “Students here just aren’t interested in that.”

Out of disappointment rose some sharp, student-centered ideas: “You have to relate to what people here care about—that’s doing well in school,” they said. “What if veganism helped us improve test scores?”

The students suggested a calendar focused on what they find meaningful—being smart and staying afloat in a demanding academic environment.

Inspired by Failure: Shaking Up the Routine

What can failure reveal about UWSEM’s approach to donation solicitation, staff development and UWSEM’s framing of enormous societal challenges? I’m about to find out.

Next week, I’ll fly back to Detroit for a few days to meet with UWSEM’s board of directors at a quarterly board meeting. What I’m learning at Stanford has inspired me to question the way we structure our work together. We’re gaining a greater, even more nuanced understanding of the problems facing metro Detroit; our approach to addressing these problems—including our board meetings—should reflect that.

During February’s meeting, UWSEM’s board will take part in a design thinking prototyping process with our Detroit-area community of donors, clients and volunteers. We’re involving people at both ends of the spectrum of community engagement and philanthropy—people who are highly engaged in local community work or philanthropy and people who aren’t yet involved. We want to understand community members’ lives and motivations, while forging stronger connections between our daily work—our routine board meetings, for example—and community needs. We also want to understand the next generation of donors and how we can design a donation and volunteer experience that will support them. I hope we can work together to develop even deeper insights about UWSEM’s role in Southeastern Michigan.

I know my plan could burst into flames, but I’m eager to tap into the creative potential of UWSEM’s leadership so we can better empathize and innovate as an organization. The potential rewards are game-changing, and they’re too powerful and important to ignore.

Using stories from his own life, David Kelley describes how to rediscover creative confidence

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