Celebrate Learning From Failures (With Champagne!)

Joost Minnaar
Written by Joost Minnaar June 29, 2022

We recently held a brainstorming session at our office for the newest on-demand course for the Academy—one about the concept of Psychological Safety. During the session, we discussed how one of the things you can do to create psychological safety is to embrace failure instead of avoiding it. But this is hard because failing is not fun. It absolutely sucks. Therefore, it is better not to celebrate the failure itself but rather celebrate the lessons learned from it.

But how do you actually celebrate learning from failure? During the brainstorming, we talked about companies holding such things as Fuck-Up Nights, Church of Fail, or Failure Festivals that do just that.

It also reminded me of a Harvard Business School teaching case (by Kerr, Jones & Brownell) that I recently read about the game developer, Supercell.

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Supercell, one of our Bucket List companies that we still have yet to visit, is a Finnish gaming company founded in 2010 by Ilkka Paananen and Mikko Kodisoja.

The company employs about 200 people (internally called "Supercellians," most of which are based in their Helsinki office) that develop insanely popular mobile games like Hay Day, Clash of Clans, and Brawl Stars.

What is perhaps most remarkable about this Finnish company is how it created a culture where it is completely safe to learn from failure. Their method of doing this is worth sharing and definitely inspirational.

In order to fully understand why celebrating learning from failure is vitally important for the team at Supercell, we first have to understand three things:

  • How Supercell organizes their firm based on autonomous cells
  • How Supercell connects their collection of autonomous cells
  • What Supercell's demanding game development process looks like

1. Small, autonomous cells

The leadership at Supercell wants to create the best possible environment for their employees to work in, and then get out of their way as fast as possible.

This led them to organize the company around two main principles: "minimal hierarchy" and "zero bureaucracy."

Minimal hierarchy

First, Supercell is run with a minimal amount of hierarchy. They do not rely on middle management, but instead organize the company around several autonomous "cells" (just like many of the other progressive organizations from our Bucket List).

These autonomous cells can be seen as small teams—often ranging from five to seven people—that are each responsible for their own game development.

Moreover, the cells work completely independently from one another. As such, Supercell can be more regarded as a collection of 200 entrepreneurs rather than a traditional company.

Zero bureaucracy

Secondly, Supercell is focused on maintaining zero bureaucracy. They try to push maximum freedom, trust, responsibility, and ownership to their autonomous cells.

As a result, each cell enjoys high levels of decision-making regarding the development of their games, the use of resources for their project, and even the authority to kill a project if deemed necessary.

In fact, not even the top management team can overrule most of their decisions. (Remember this part; it’s an important element of how they celebrate learning from failure.)

Supercell wants to create the best possible environment for their employees to work in. Therefore they organize the company around two main principles: "minimal hierarchy" and "zero bureaucracy."
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2. Connecting the autonomous cells

With all these autonomous cells operating independently from one another, Supercell must be able to connect them to form a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.

They achieve this by ensuring transparency into what each cell is working on (and how well they are performing), and by sharing information based on a clear business rhythm via daily updates and weekly meetings.

Daily updates

Each day, all Supercellians receive a detailed update with all kinds of performance data and statistics regarding their live games and those still in development.

These updates allow each person to see aspects such as how much revenue each game generates, how many users are actually playing a particular game, how many new users they manage to attract, and so forth. Every Supercellian can then judge for themselves if a certain game is a success or not—or identify the potential for success.

Weekly meetings

Aside from the daily updates, Supercell also established a rhythm of twice-weekly meetings that allow employees to share important updates about the work of their cells.

Each Monday morning, they organize an informal, voluntary, 10-minute meeting to kick off the week and provide cell members the chance to share anything they consider essential for others to know.

Each Friday, any cells currently working on game development are requited to attend a meeting where they present the current status of their projects (and any other important updates) to the other cells. (Remember this part as well, because this Friday meeting is also an important element of how they celebrate learning from failure.)

Both meetings are recorded and distributed around the company. This enables each Supercellian to remain in-the-know about what other the cells are working on, what they have achieved, what they are struggling with, and what they may need help with.

3. The Game development process

Supercell's goal is to develop games that will keep players engaged for years, which I'm sure you can imagine is a pretty big challenge. That is precisely why they have an extremely demanding game development process.

The process consist of five phases: a first prototype game, a playable prototype game, a company playable game, a soft launch, and finally, a global launch.

First prototype

A new cell is typically set up when one or more people come up with a new game idea that could potentially become a big hit. It is then the responsibility of the people that create the new cell to recruit the right people into their team.

The founding team of a new cell mostly consists of just a handful of people—usually a combination of a game developer, a game artist, and one or two programmers.

The top leadership of the company must then approve the new cell to work on their new project (one of the very few major decisions not distributed to the cells).

Once the new cell is approved, the team gets to work. The first step is usually centered on turning their game idea into a very rough prototype that is only able to just showcase what the new game will all be about.

Once the cell is done creating this first prototype (which usually takes several weeks), and if they still feel that their game is a good candidate to become a future hit, they move their project into the next phase of the process.

Likewise, if the cell is feeling apprehensive about the game at this point, they can decide to kill the project.

Playable prototype

During the second phase of the development process, the cell turns their rough prototype into a game that people are actually able to play. Once this playable prototype is ready, the cell invites a small group of Supercellians to play their game and provide them with feedback.

If their colleagues enjoy the game, the cell can choose to move forward. If it falls flat, they can either improve it or simply choose to abandon the project.

Playable game

In the third phase, the cell turns the playable prototype into a real game that will look much like the one they plan on releasing to the world in the future.

During this phase, the cells invite all their colleagues to play their game and provide them with feedback, which gives them the best gauge thus far on whether or not people actually enjoy playing it. If so, they can decide to move their project onto the next phase.

However, the reality is that most cells decide to kill their project at this stage if it fails to meet the company's demanding expectations. Few projects are able to convincingly show that they will "keep players engaged for years."

Soft launch

If the data and feedback to this point has shown that the game has the potential to keep players engaged for years, the cell releases the game to the outside world. This is done first via a soft launch (or beta launch) into a smaller geographical market, such as Canada, Australia, Singapore, or Hong Kong.

By the time the cell has reached this phase, the team has grown along the development process by adding new members to handle other elements such as marketing, community managing, and data analysis.

During the soft launch, the cell gathers data on how real customers seem to enjoy their game. When the data demonstrates that the game is performing as the cell had hoped, it is moved into the final development phase.

Global launch

In the last phase of the development process, the game is officially launched to the world.

However, this is not the end of most cells—quite the opposite, actually. For many, these cells are just the beginning of their adventure, as they usually stick together after the global launch to continue developing and updating the game on an ongoing basis.

4. Celebrating learning from failure

During the entire development process—and continuing well after the global launch—cells are given high levels of autonomy to develop their games, including setting their own strategic directions, targets, and user testing.

The cells themselves decide when to move a game into the next development phase. Perhaps more importantly, they decide on their own when to kill their project.

As you can imagine, this is pretty damn hard. After all, it is difficult for any of us to abandon something we have invested so much time and effort in.

It is difficult for any of us to abandon something we have invested so much time and effort in.
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Even so, the ability to kill off their own darling projects is an important feature of any cell at Supercell. Why? Because many of the games will not reach the end of the development process, as they simply come up short of the company's standards.

Here's the thing. Over the last ten years, only a handful of games have been considered hits. This means a shit ton of games have failed to reach the global launch phase of the development process. And it's safe to assume plenty more didn't even reach the third or fourth phases.

Risky business in a safe environment

While other companies might regard so many failures as a concern, Supercell views it as a positive thing. They believe they need to take risks to even have a chance to develop the next hit game.

And common sense tells us that when you take lots of risks, you will probably fail more often than not.

For people to feel comfortable enough to take lots of risks, Supercell tries to create an environment where it is safe to fail. Cells not only have a lot of freedom in how to develop their own games, they also have a lot of freedom in how to fail.

But what is important here is that Supercell does not celebrate the failure itself, but rather what they've learned from that failure. It is about what lessons a particular failure could teach to not just one cell, but all the cells in the company.

Kill your darlings with champagne

This is why the mandatory Friday meetings are so important.

During these meetings, the cells that killed their game that week will get up on the stage and tell all their colleagues why they failed, what they think went right and wrong, what important insights they gained along the way, and what others can learn from that.

But it doesn't stop there. To actually reinforce the feeling of recognizing and celebrating the learnings of their development adventure, the cells toast to what they have learned from that failure with a nice, bubbly glass of champagne.

What a concept.

For people to feel comfortable enough to take lots of risks, Supercell tries to create an environment where it is safe to fail.
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Want to learn more about progressive organizations and how they create wildly engaging workplaces? Check out the Corporate Rebels Academy.

Written by Joost Minnaar
Joost Minnaar
Co-founder Corporate Rebels. My daily focus is on research, writing, and anything else related to making work more fun.
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