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Toy that teaches people how to fail holds powerful potential for corporate world

[There are important lessons about failing and trying again that we're missing out on by avoiding failure at all costs. / Thinkstock]

Imagine a toy that’s specifically designed to make you fail. The soon-to-be-released Failure Toy teaches people all about flopping—which, according to the founder of Twenty One Toys, is a core skill for the 21st century.

“How do we reframe failure, which should be a normal, natural part of our learning and development and how we grow and not this this terrible thing we want to avoid at all costs?” says Twenty One Toys founder and lead designer, Ilana Ben-Ari. “We want to get the learning across that failure is natural in all parts of our learning.

“When you know how failure works, you know how you work with failure,” she adds. “We’re in a stage of failure abstinence right now instead of failure education.”

Designed for people “aged six to CEO,” the Failure Toy is a kind of puzzle than involves balancing and stacking things. It follows the release of the company’s wildly successful Empathy Toy, an abstract, wooden 3D puzzle for two or more players. One person builds a pattern with the puzzle and has to describe that pattern to others so they can re-create it—while everyone is blindfolded.

Ben-Ari first came up with the Empathy Toy while doing a research project in university for the visually impaired community. “It is a metaphor for how do I communicate with someone can’t see or who sees things differently or has a different perspective than myself,” Ben-Ari says. “It involves frustration and patience: how do I creatively communicate to someone else who can’t see? The toys have us looking at self-assessment and self-reflection.”

The Empathy Toy, which has been available for over two years, is used in 43 countries, at 30 post-secondary institutions and in some MBA programs, and by corporations ranging from Fed-Ex to Scotiabank. Some companies even pull out the Empathy Toy during interviews and have prospective employees play with it. Fuelling its success is research into how empathy can actually improve business practices and outcomes.

Companies are more profitable and productive when they act ethically, treat their staff well, and communicate better with their customers, according to the latest Lady Geek Global Empathy Index. The top 10 companies in the 2015 index increased in value more than twice as much as the bottom 10 and generated 50 per cent more earnings. Average earnings among the top 10 were up 6 per cent this year, while the average earnings of the bottom 10 dropped 9 per cent.

The Failure Toy is due out later this year. Ben-Ari , who has a background in industrial design and now works out of the Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto, was one of five female entrepreneurs to receive an interest-free loan from a funding initiative called Radical Generosity, established by a network of 500 female entrepreneurs, to help launch it.

“The [toys’] challenges are very complex and require creativity,” she says. “For us it’s about elevating the important social and emotional skills, which are just as important as STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] skills.”