Learning from Failure… a collection of stories, insights and lessons learned.
Today Peter Sims wrote about my favorite topic Failure in an article for the HBR Blog titled “The No. 1 Enemy of Creativity: Fear of Failure.” Sims comments on how parents, teachers, and bosses all push us to prevent errors and mitigate risks. He points out how entrepreneurs and designers have a different frame of mind toward failure seeing “mistakes” as part of the trial-and-error processes of driving innovation. Sims calls for each of us to revolt against this thinking and to no longer be “shackled by these norms.”
This is not necessary new thinking but it was a good summary of the challenge innovators face in a world with a narrow tolerance for failure. I have include a few video links of my favorite thinkers in this space at the end of this post: Dan Pink on Creativity and Design, Sir Ken Robinson on Creativity in Education, and Eric Ries on Rapid Experimentation / Minimum Viable Products.
The one piece of the article that I found most interesting was how GE CEO Jeff Immelt and CMO Beth Comstock are advancing this thinking with GE’s Innovation Accelerator. For an organization that has been the poster child of the six sigma business management strategy that strives for zero defects this is quite a revelation! In manufacturing processes zero defects makes perfect sense… in driving innovation not so much.
Maybe someday we will be able to reconcile the role of failure in raising our kids, teaching our students, and driving our businesses?
Dan Pink (speaking at Best Buy): the importance of creativity and design
Sir Ken Robinson (TED Talk): how our educational system is killing creativity
Eric Ries (Wired Business Conference): the strategy behind rapid low cost experiments & minimum viable products
Last month Inc. magazine ran an article titled “Why Silicon Valley Loves Failure” about how failure has moved beyond a buzzword in the land of Internet startups. The author (Eric Markowitz – @EricMarkowitz) shared the story of mid-’90s entrepreneur Kamran Elahian. Elahian had custom plates for his Ferrari F355 made with the word “Momenta.” Momenta was the name of a company that he founded in back 1989. Great, so what you say? There are thousands of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who drive around with their company’s name on the vanity plates. The interesting point was that Elahian chose the name of his previous company that had already gone bankrupt back in 1992. When ask why he chose his failed company, Elahian responded with “It’s to remind me not to be too proud. Unlike other entrepreneurs who put the names of successful companies on license plates, I decided to put my biggest failure. That way, I have to be reminded of it every time I get in the car.” He had moved beyond accepting his failure to being proud of his failures (see my post on the idea of a having a Failure Resume).
Markowitz goes on to describe how the angel investor and founder of 500 Startups Dave McClure described an alternate name for his incubator as “fail factory” and suggested that they were “trying to ‘manufacture fail’ on a regular basis, and we think that’s how you learn.” McClure went on to suggest that “Getting used to that, bouncing back from that, being able to figure out what people hate and turn that into what people love…if you’re not willing to take the risk of failing and not experience failure, you’re never going to figure out what the right path is to success.” Like the explorers Lewis and Clark, McClure recognized the reality that sometimes you are going to take the wrong path and have to double back to find an alternate route. It’s not failure it is exploration and discovery.
New business failure has been around as long as there have been entrepreneurs crazy enough to think that they could succeed. So why has there been a shift in Silicon Valley from a culture of tolerating failure to one of embracing failure?
Markowitz sites a couple of factors that have changed recently that have made it easier to embrace failure: 1) the advent of cloud technologies and 2) a shift in understanding what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur.
Prior to cloud computing most startups would require tens of millions of dollars to procure the necessary hardware to launch their companies. Today companies need only to spend a few hundred thousand dollars to procure the same equipment and services from a cloud based provider. This reduction in startup expense has enabled more investments in riskier startups which results in more failures. A low cost failure is much easier to stomach than an expensive one.
In my opinion the second shift is the more important one. The realization that entrepreneurs who have failed might be just as likely (perhaps even more likely) to succeed on their next company as a new entrepreneur. Ned Staebler, vice president for economic development at Wayne State University explains that “This shift hasn’t occurred out of some transcendental revelation. Rather, investors have seen numerous resilient entrepreneurs learn from their mistakes and have a big success after one or more failures. As rational actors, investors want to be a part of that success.”
In the land of startups where the probability of success is extremely low, finding an entrepreneur with an untarnished record is near impossible. What always struck me as a paradox was that these leaders knew more when they finished than when they started about what it takes to succeed and yet were labeled as failures. To be clear I am not suggesting that we embrace incompetence or not doing your homework but instead I am suggesting that with most innovation work we do not truly know what the outcome will be unless we actually try it and frequently we will miss the mark or we will simply get it wrong.
So if failure is a likely outcome with innovation work how do organizations move forward? How do you accept failure as a likely outcome and plan for it to occur? For any organization large or small, Fortune 50 or non-profit I would suggest starting with three steps:
Food for thought:
We have all seen the endless number of quotes on how we should fail more, fail quickly, and fail often but what do we actually do with all of these failures? If we are lucky we might actually take the time to learn from them but usually we quickly take stock in what happened and make a few mental notes to ensure that we don’t do it again. Rarely do we share the details of your our failures even with friends or family and we certainly would never think of revealing our failures with colleagues or perspective employers. Why do we have this inconsistency? We know that failure is a necessary part of learning and growing for both the organization and the individual but we never want to admit to our failures? If our resume is a collection of our successes… where is our failure resume?
As I have been conducting research for a book on failure and the important role role of failure in innovation I came across a great story from Tina Seelig. Seelig was the Executive Director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program when she had written a blog post back in 2009 about how she had required students in her class to create a failure resume. This resume wouldn’t highlight their accomplishments or successes but would list their personal, professional, and academic failures. With each failure they would explain what they had learned through the failure. Brilliant!
These students were attending one of the most prestigious universities in the United States and had only been admitted based on their incredible hard work and preparation. That hard work had paid off in academic and personal success not failures. They were used to trumpeting these successes and glossing over any minor setbacks that they had received. Here they were forced to acknowledge their failures and change their perspective to draw out what had they really learned. Seelig noted that beyond her class some students had kept their failure resumes updated even years later. One interesting twist on societal acceptance of failure failure is what country you are from. Based on much of the feedback from Quora responses to the question “Is it okay to mention my failed startup on my resume?” it depends on your culture. America… ok. Parts of Europe and Asia… not so much.
Woody Allen was quoted as saying that “If you are not failing every now and again, it’s a sign that you’re not doing anything very innovative.” So if we are supposed to fail every now and again, why is it that we never want to admit to these failures? Why do we not take pride in our failures as part of the learning process? As a risk taker? As an innovator? Silicon Valley recognizes the role of failure and the reality that failures are significantly more likely than success in the process of innovation. Seelig included in her blog post a video interview with Randy Komisar a former entrepreneur and now partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Komisar starts the interview by recognizing, “What distinguishes Silicon Valley is not it’s successes but the way in which it deals with failure.” He further notes that “Innovation is about taking risks to do things that haven’t been done before” and that “big businesses don’t usually venture into this space because their models don’t tolerate this rate of failure.” His interview is spot on and well worth the 8.5 minutes to watch it!
Food for thought:
Back in 2009 Silicon Valley entrepreneur Eric Ries (@ericries) had coined the term “pivot” for the technique used by tech startups to change the strategic direction of their companies based on what they had learned (see his original post here). The theory goes that by doing you are actually learning something along the way (see my previous post on learning from feedback loops in systems thinking) and that you might find the “something” that you had learned has a better chance of success than your original strategy. The alternative is that at least it will enable you to extend your organization’s runway further out into the future in search of success.
At these pivot points the survival of the organization may hinge on changing course rather than running the risk of ramming the ship into the approaching shoreline based on your current course. Ries had reframed failure as a positive and captured the media’s attention in doing so. He went on to author the book The Lean Startup and there were scores of articles highlighting the importance of the pivot, from VentureBeat, Forbes, and Fast Company.
Fast company recently did a series of blog posts (here is a link to the archived posts) focused on the art of the pivot with plenty of examples including some big names like Twitter, Groupon, and PayPal. Sometimes these startups made a pivot because there was a better opportunity for growth with a new business model but often times it is because they recognize the limitations of their current course and want to avoid complete failure. It is also interesting how by framing the shift as a pivot one is able to soften the mental blow from calling it what it really is… a failure. It makes it much easier for an entrepreneur (or an intrepreneur) to explain that they have pivoted into a new business model rather than admitting that their original strategy failed and they are moving on to a new idea.
In one community in Boulder, Colorado the community of entrepreneurs goes a step further in helping to soften the mental anguish for a colleague when their business fails – they gather together for dinner and attend a “startup wake” where they can all grieve together. This maybe sound a little over the top for some but it points to the emotional discomfort we all feel when we fail and we want to either avoid this feeling altogether or we try to dissipate the effects by sharing our pain with friends. Brad Feld (@bfeld) the managing director at the Foundry Group, a VC group in Boulder, describes it as “the community’s way of showing these young, fragile entrepreneurs that it was okay to fail – that the honor was in trying.”
It is worth noting that the pivot is not just unique to the startup world but happens as well in organizations: large companies, small companies, and even non-profits (keep watching as this will be the topic for a future blog post). To this point, Intuit recently reported that 53% of companies pivoted in the last two years to stay alive (see article).
Food for thought:
In early 2007 I was planning to launch my first Failure Forum. The forums were a series of presentations (modeled after TED talks) with an ensuing discussion that were meant to examine internal innovation projects that had been shut down. We sought to understand what had been accomplished with the project, what had we learned from it, and what would we do differently next time. The truth was that many of the innovation projects were modeled after previous work.
At the time I was looking for some inspiration to help me communicate to the audience why I thought admitting to and learning from our failures was so important. One of the pieces that I ended up choosing to share was a 2006 Nike commercial with Michael Jordan. The commercial opens with a scene of Michael getting out of his limo and walking into the arena. While walking through the tunnel he is shaking hands and giving nods to the security and maintenance staff. The voiceover begins with him recognizing that he has missed over 9000 shots in his career, loosing almost 300 games, and the 26 times he had been trusted to take the game winning shot… and missed. The commercial ends with Michael walking through doors into the “Players Entrance” and finishes with his insight, “I have failed over, and over, and over again in my life… and that is why I succeed.”
As I had watched some of the failures from the USA men’s gymnastics team this week I was reminded of this commercial. What constitutes success… a perfect routine at the most opportune time? As I watched the footage of Aly Raisman warming up for her floor exercise during the team competition they showed a couple of big misses with her routine and they were questioning her readiness to perform a flawless routine. This had me thinking. She had obviously done that routine flawlessly hundreds, if not thousands, of times previously. This wasn’t a question of whether she was capable of doing the routine; this was a question of if this one time was going to be one of her flawless routines. I wondered if her mistakes might have been on purpose. Was she practicing failure in front of an audience? Making errors during warm up practice seems like exactly the right time to get the “failures” out of the way?
Extending this idea back to Jordan, I would suggest that missing the game winning shot 26 times was just him practicing for the 25 times that he successfully made the game winning shot! One quick note, a 49% (25/51) accuracy rate is incredibly high for a shot in the last few seconds of an NBA game. But so what? This might be some interesting idea on sports psychology but what do I do with it?
I would suggest that we need to begin being more on purpose with practicing failure in our work organizations and in our personal lives.
In an NY Times Op-Ed article yesterday, neurosurgeon and journalist Sanjay Gupta (@sanjayguptaCNN) cited a recent anonymous survey where orthopedic surgeons said “24 percent of the tests they ordered were medically unnecessary.” The suggestion was that the surgeons were performing the unnecessary tests as a form of “defensive medicine” that is meant less to help the patient than to protect the doctor and hospital from lawsuits. Why has it come to this? How has society come to expect “zero defects” from the medical industry?
Much of my response comes from my work in progress on a book examining the role of failure in both our work and personal lives.
When I think of different professions that don’t “tolerate” failure I think of NASA engineers, military generals, and medical doctors. Why I am not exactly sure. Maybe it was because of the quote “We will not fail” from from the movie Apollo 13, Winston Churchill’s memorable quote “We shall not fail or falter…” from WWII, or from all of those years watching NBC’s hit TV show ER where there always seemed to be a doctor performing some superhuman feat to revive the “defining patient” from that week’s episode? It would be dramatic but more times than not that patient would go on to live happily ever after. For the most part that is how the show ended but not always. The truth was that not every patient survived but most did – just as in real life. Some patients died in the emergency room of “County General” from their condition or injuries and some died because of mistakes made by the doctors and staff – just as in real life.
According to a 1999 report from the Institute of Medicine at least 44,000 people and as many as 98,000 people die in hospitals each year as a result of medical errors that could have been prevented. When you think of that fact for a few minutes and let it soak it that seems like a staggering number. Even if we use the lower estimate that would put the number of deaths from medical errors higher than the number of deaths from vehicle accidents, breast cancer, and AIDS.
Now even one death from error is tragic especially if that error impacts a member of your family but these numbers need to be weighed against astonishing number of hospital visits occur each year. According to a hospital utilization report from the national Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) there are 36.1million inpatient, 109.9 million outpatient, and 123.8 million emergency room visits per year in the United States. With almost 270 million hospital visits per year and less than 100,000 error related deaths calculates to less than a 4% error rate. Now think of the complexity in dealing with that many patients with that many problems – this isn’t quite the same as manufacturing the same product over and over driving toward zero defects.
While the medical industry strives for perfection they understand that there will be mistakes and those failures will have the dire consequences. To learn from those mistakes, most hospitals use a tool they refer to as a “Morbidity and Mortality” (M & M) conference. During these routinely scheduled M & M conferences physicians and sometimes hospital administrators conduct a peer review of the errors made during the care of their patients. The goal of these conferences is to learn from previous complications or errors, modify behaviors and judgments based on those examples, and ultimately avoid making the same mistake in the future. The conferences are generally kept confidential and are not meant to be punitive to the individuals involved, instead focusing on identifying, discussing, and learning from their previous failures.
The life and death industry of human medicine has come to understand the importance of acknowledging our failures and learning from those failures. Why is this concept so foreign in our business organizations? Why do we pretend that failure isn’t an option? Why do we expect that our leaders will have “failure free” records and expect them as criteria for promotion?
As a fan of every opportunity to better understand failure and the powerful role it can play in our lives a friend recently sent me the recording of Dessa Darling’s (a.k.a. Margret Wander) 2012 commencement address to the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota. Dessa earned her degree in Philosophy from the school and is a member of the indie hip hop collective Doomtree, proving that you can actually make money with a Philosophy degree. An interesting side note on Doomtree is that they truly a collective of seven members who come together to make both music and money with no contract. If a member chooses to leave the band they are free to leave with no strings attached and they will be replaced with a new member. Even before forming they seemed to understand that most bands don’t survive when one person leaves and contracts need to be unwound so they created a more fungible organization that will survive and potentially flourish with artists coming and going. This is a great example of creating a structure or process that supports a more natural state of the world.
To be honest I hadn’t heard of Dessa or Doomtree (several of their videos are available on YouTube and the music is really good) prior to seeing her commencement address but I was pretty impressed with both her delivery and her content. The speech was not quite as polished as the addresses from J.K. Rowling (Harvard 2008 address: The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination) or Steve Jobs (Stanford 2005 address: You’ve Got to Find What You Love) but Dessa was amazingly authentic and wonderfully perceptive. I have included three of the what I felt were her most notable insights: embrace failing as a tool, strategies that help support failing, and re-framing your life through a lens of “Charitable Interpretation.”
1) Failing is a tool so start now: In enduring failure you are able to tolerate the prospect of failure, you become bold enough to be appropriately ambitious when selecting your future objectives. If you pursue only those goals which you know you are really likely to achieve, you live like an iceberg with the vast majority of yourself undiscovered and unknowable even to yourself… Failure is the tool that we use to demarcate the edges of our abilities.
2) Two small strategies to start failing: 1) keep your overhead low – the more money you spend the more time you have to spend earning the money to pay those bills, 2) life’s most precious commodity is time – you will find no one willing to share out his money but by how many does each of us divide up his life. People are most wasteful of the one thing for which it is right to be stingy – time.
3) Embrace “Charitable Interpretation” as way to re-frame your thinking to move your life (and the world) forward: “I am not trying to get to right, I am not trying to win the life, but to make the argument better, to find the better idea, to have a better resolution, that to relinquish my desperation to be correct and instead to find a solution to the problem whether personal, academic, or vocational.” Just think how this re-framing could improve our political dialog where today we seem to be locked in a zero-sum “game” where one party wins only by the other party loosing? Instead could we begin our discussions by interpreting the other side’s arguments in a way that maximizes their truth or rationality to find common group rather than residing on the polar extremes?
The truth is that many of these lessons transcend both our personal lives and our work lives. I would highly recommend that you take 22 minutes out of your day and enjoy the journey.
YouTube – Dessa 2012 Spring Commencement: Keynote Address
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