Experimental Failure Leads to Success

We’ve all heard the Thomas Edison quote that he “successfully discovered 1000 ways to not make a light bulb.” He didn’t consider the 1000 attempts as failures, but rather experiments from which he collected data that guided the innovative process. Who else lays claim to so many failures? Cisco grew to be one of the largest technology companies in the world after being rejected for funding by 76 venture capital firms. Michael Jordan, in the minds of many (including yours truly) the greatest basketball player of all time, was cut from his high school basketball team. John Grisham, award winning novelist, was rejected by a couple dozen  publishers before getting his first sizable deal. Slumdog Millionaire won 8 Academy Awards after Warner Brothers gave up on it and sold the property to Fox Searchlight. In short, each of these is a story about finding a positive way to apply lessons learned.

Why is it that workers go from being starry eyed, curious and energetic to automatons after working for a company for an extended period of time? Usually, by the time these numbed brains “check out” mentally, they have already been promoted to a managerial level. We value visionary leaders, but all disdain lethargic managers. What’s the difference between the two? The loss of intellectual creativity and desire to take risks leads to bureaucracy. The market demands innovation. Those who will lead are challenged to not become shut off to progress and new ideas.

Paul Arden wrote It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be. The former executive creative director of Saatchi & Sattchi said, people “will say nice things rather than be too critical. Also, we tend to edit out the bad so that we hear only what we want to hear…If, instead of seeking approval, you ask, ‘What’s wrong with it? How can I make it better?’ You are more likely to get a truthful, critical answer.”

Jeremy Gutsche concurs with Arden, writing that “a culture that openly discusses imperfection is more likely to accept the failure that comes from acceptable risk.”

Michael Jordan, mentioned above as the greatest basketball player in history, said the following about taking risks, 

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 ti,es 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.” 

Most companies, however, spend a lot of time in performance appraisals celebrating successful outcomes and critiquing efforts that don’t appear to meet expectations. Think for a minute, however, about how to inspire your employees to be clever and progressive. Put measures in place to help them feel protected. It must be understood that trying new things, even if failure is the outcome, is a better business decision than undertaking safe projects constantly.

It is said that Steven Ross would fire employees for not making mistakes when Warner was launching its MTV subsidiary. He and his leadership team were trying to debut new programming and needed as much innovation as possible. Similarly, Microsoft used to have the mentality that a leader was not ready for promotion if he had not had a highly publicized, big flop. Thomas Watson, Sr., founder of IBM, once received a phone call from an employee who wanted to resign after making a $10 million mistake. Watson refused to let him follow through with his intended action, telling the manager that IBM had just spent $10 million educating him.

How much money and time are you willing to spend in your organization to educate people and give them the chance to pioneer something great? Probably not enough. 

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