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?
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.
With the dry weather this summer my backyard oak trees seem to have made a premature determination that fall has already arrived. How do I know this? By the amazing proliferation of acorns throughout my yard before August had even arrived. As fast as the acorns could fall the family of gray squirrels was scampering across my yard burying their new found bounty. Although food was abundant the squirrels were making the effort to bury these acorns for their future survival. While snow may come relatively early in Minnesota it wasn’t likely to start falling for at least three months but the squirrels weren’t waiting for even a moment to begin their work.
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.
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?
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.
Inc. Magazine just did a great story “The 22nd Time is the Charm” on entrepreneurship, failure, perseverance, and finally success. When Beachbody first launched the P90X home fitness DVDs in 2005 the product was a huge failure: it was costing too much to make and the sales were dismal. By the end of that year the company’s revenues had sunk from $100m to $83m. With all of the production and marketing expenses involved in launching the product the per order costs were at roughly $250 (much of this due to sizable fixed costs and low sales volume) and they were only selling the DVDs for what they thought customers would be willing to pay at $120 per set – obviously not a sustainable business model.
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