In today’s Globe and Mail newspaper (15/Aug/2014), James Dyson of vacuum and fan fame wrote an excellent article describing how “failure just is part of the process” and that developing his cyclonic vacuum took 15 years and 5,127 failures! He goes on to say “that if you fail once, you’re one step closer to success” and that failure should be “encouraged, accepted, even sought after. Because it’s failure that drives invention forward.” See /http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/careers/leadership-lab/yes-its-ok-it-took-me-5127-attempts-to-make-a-bagless-vaccuum/article19992476/
SOURCE: Eva Rinaldi from Sydney Australia
Indeed James Dyson is not alone as a successful inventor and entrepreneur who embraces failure. Other famous people include Thomas Edison and his light bulb, The Wright brothers and human flight, Edwin Land and instant photography, Steve Jobs and the Apple computer, and Elon Musk and the Tesla electric car as well as SpaceX private spaceflight, to name a few. The nature of invention and innovation is experimentation and with experimentation comes frequent failure. If you knew exactly what to do to succeed, it’s likely someone would have done it already. Through failure, and especially documenting and reviewing it, comes learning and such learning leads to new ideas and breakthroughs.
So why is failure so shun in all but the most progressive (and in many cases successful) schools and workplaces? Why is failure attributed to stupidity and waste and not experiential learning and eventual success which are so highly touted? Why are failures hidden or swept under the carpet instead of celebrated and shared so that the learnings can be also be shared (as again they are at some progressive companies)?
In the majority of the high school and undergraduate university education systems, the achievement of high marks alone has come to dominate regardless of the underlying learning and ability to apply it. Frequent testing and marking is used as a hammer to motivate students to keep up, as marks are the primary screen for advancement. Much of it becomes rote learning, simply, easily and unambiguously assessed by multiple choice questions. Since everything counts, there is little room for failure nor productive feedback and I might add the kind of experiential learning that is so sought after and important to innovation.
Likewise In the majority of companies, a stumble free and failure free career path is what drives promotion and its spoils - higher salary and status. The dominate model is to keep your head down and not take any chances. Again without taking calculated risks there will be little chance of the kinds of rewards that Dyson, Edison, Orville and Wilbur, Edwin, Steve and Elon have brought to their respective firms and society as a whole. We have also all come to learn the risks firms take and the often serious consequences when not continuing to innovate in the face of global competition.
So what can and should be done? A few ideas come to mind:
In the educational systems, more testing for individual feedback as opposed to assessment should be done. I recently completed a massive open online course (MOOC) that incorporated numerous problem sets and given that I was taking it for my own interest, these served only as effective feedback that reinforced my learning. Creative, experiential and experimental activities should be encouraged, one of my favourite being science fairs. The assessments should cover effort, creative thinking, response to mentoring, and learning as much as end results. I once took a lab course in analytical chemistry in which instead of performing prescribed experiments, we were allowed to experiment on our own. We got a good feel for capabilities of the sophisticated equipment by tested a variety of samples and changing the various settings sequentially and observing the effects. Pass/Fail/Retry types of hurdles should also be incorporated, like a driving test. Essays and projects could be submitted, receive comments and constructive criticism, and be then resubmitted until they achieve an acceptable standard.
In the workplace, a culture change is required. First off, innovation needs to be moved to the forefront of most organizations. Coincident with this, best efforts (i.e. well thought out and executed plans) should be celebrated in addition to only success. As Michael LeBoeuf points out in one of my favourite books, “The Greatest Management Principle in the World” (1985): “What gets rewarded gets done.” He goes on to propose that if you want risk-taking, you need to reward it with recognition. This in turn will drive what Chris Argyris coined double loop learning (1974) in which not only are a firm’s experimental and even general business techniques and tactics reviewed and improved upon, but so are the underlying assumptions. Such a process addresses effectiveness as well as efficiencies leading to better solutions and outcomes.
In one early-stage company I worked in, the two engineers devised a friendly competition between themselves to come up with the best clutch system for a power wheelchair. After a first round, they shared their solutions and then embarked on a second independent round. We eventually filed a patent (US 6209670 B1) and incorporated the “winning” design.
Failure should be embraced and celebrated, especially by individuals intent on fostering learning and innovation. This will require some courageous and creative actions (some of which may even fail!).
“I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Michael Jordan, professional NBA basketball player, entrepreneur and 5 time MVP.