There’s a new toy to teach failure. Here’s how it works.

Failure is inevitable in social impact work–and it’s time to embrace it

Why It Matters

Failure is typically not something organizations in the world of impact like to open up about. Twenty One Toys founder Ilana Ben-Ari tells us why teaching failure at the workplace can not only strengthen organizational culture, but help create lasting impact.

Striving for success guarantees one thing: failure. Often, we view failure in relation to success, seeing it only as a brief pause on the ladder to the top.

In reality, how we experience failure is very different. This dissonance led Twenty One Toys to launch its kickstarter campaign for the Failure Toy this month. The Toronto-based organization, founded by social entrepreneur Ilana Ben-Ari, creates toys that inspire and educate beyond the textbook.

Failure Toy

The Failure Toy is designed to help people of all ages explore how we deal with failure–and the risk, blame, and competition associated with it. It is a game of balance using wooden blocks and an unstable circle. To successfully balance the pieces requires experimentation and teamwork. Players earn points for balancing pieces on the base, but lose every time a piece falls. Team members change throughout the game, complicating the idea of team competition.

“Failure is a natural part of our development, yet we don’t teach it,” says Ben-Ari. “On one end we have an education system that practices failure abstinence, not discussing it. We have some amazing educators trying to push for failure education–but the system is one that celebrates success over failure [and] celebrates A+.”

The classroom mentality around capital-F failure follows students throughout secondary education and into workplaces, where Ben-Ari has seen troubling hypocrisy. “Then we have the startup community saying, ‘Fail fast, fail often.’ Which only works for a select few and can come across to many as tone deaf to the fact that–while it’s part of the learning process–true failure just sucks.”

Twenty One Toys sees the Failure Toy as a useful classroom tool that can also be beneficial to the workplace, where failure often comes with big, real-life concerns, like losing one’s job. In the world of social impact, Ben-Ari notes there is a misalignment between what workplaces say about failure, and how they treat it in practice.

“If they say it’s important and necessary for innovation, rarely do they design systems that allow for it or create the right incentives,” she says. “Also, it’s just really hard to do this right because we understand very little about failure’s role in the workplace.”

Failure Toy

How workplaces understand failure can be changed by changing how goals are set and met, and creating new milestones to reach. As Ben-Ari says, “We create milestones for getting to success, ‘What did they love?’ instead of also designing milestones around the question, ‘What did we get wrong?’, making room to change project directions through experimentation. We need to design [the word] ‘failure’ into the process which is just another word for feedback when it matters.” Instead of fearing failure, it is important to ask what can we learn from it, and how we can help ourselves and our colleagues better respond to it.

Ben-Ari says children and adults react differently to the idea of failure when using the Failure Toy, demonstrating how a risk-averse education entrenches fear around failure. “Adults definitely get more nervous when they hear that there are consequences to going big with the patterns. They also tend to get more upset when it doesn’t work out, especially when they are the ‘losing’ team.”

Designed into the game is a different concept of “winning.” The winning team can be determined by tallying points, but the game also offers a more abstract way of looking at success and failure. What behaviour worked? Where was the innovation along the way?

Failure Toy

While it is applicable in the workplace, the toy’s potential in the classroom is perhaps most exciting. Younger students are unburdened by the same societal hang-ups around failure, and have the opportunity to reimagine what success means, with failing being a natural part of life.

“Some of my favourite moments were when we asked a fifth-grade class for tips on what we can tell adults that are struggling with failure and they said, ‘You have to try out your strategy first, to make sure that’s it’s not a terrible strategy’,” recalls Ben-Ari. “I loved that. They didn’t seem to be as scared of failing yet at that age.”