Ted Nelson
Microlearning 2007 … and conversation


I'm always fascinated by the way people talk about failure. Reminded by reading again James Dyson's famous remark, "Enjoy failure and learn from it. You can never learn from success." (at Dan Saffer's blog), here are some of my other favourite touchstone quotations/reference points on failure and its close relationship with learning, creativity and innovation. When we spend so much time training young people to jump through examiners' hoops, we ought to be very concerned about how we are also steering them away from taking risks — away from daring to fail, to be innovative and, yes, wrong. Effecting change in education that does something about this requires just as much visionary leadership and management as it does in business.

Failure is the rule rather than the exception, and every failure contains information. One of the most misleading lessons imparted by those who have reached their goal is that the ones who win are the ones who persevere. Not always. If you keep trying without learning why you failed, you'll probably fail again and again. Perseverance must be accompanied by the embrace of failure. Failure is what moves you forward. Listen to failure. Steve Wozniak

Tough task, to open a high-profile conference like Aula2006 (see this previous post for background) with a speech on "failure". But social software expert Clay Shirky dissected it carefully and out came an interesting insight: organizations that want to encourage innovation should focus on reducing the cost of failure rather than focusing on minimizing its likelihood, as most companies do today. LunchoverIP

"Getting good" at failure, however, doesn't mean creating anarchy out of organization. It means leaders -- not just on a podium at the annual meeting, but in the trenches, every day -- who create an environment safe for taking risks and who share stories of their own mistakes. It means bringing in outsiders unattached to a project's past. It means carving out time to reflect on failure, not just success. Perhaps most important, it means designing ways to measure performance that balance accountability with the freedom to make mistakes. People may fear failure, but they fear the consequences of it even more. "The performance culture really is in deep conflict with the learning culture," says Paul J. H. Schoemaker, CEO of consulting firm Decision Strategies International Inc. "It's an unusual executive who can balance these." BusinessWeek

Being setup for failure is to be setup for success. This week I plan to rejoice in my various failed trials and actions. I hope your week goes just as well for you too. John Maeda

Enlightened managers strive to be collaborative rather than controlling. Only through engaged conversations over time can managers create failure-tolerant work environments that invite innovation. This is not to say that a major achievement shouldn’t be applauded, or that repeated, avoidable mistakes should be tolerated. But astute managers mark the daily progress of small successes and failures with an evenhanded, open curiosity about the lessons learned and the next steps to take. Richard Farson

Dyson: There’s a famous Honda (NYSE:HMC) quote. I’ll get it slightly wrong, but in essence what it says is, “You’ve got to fail and then have the courage to overcome failure in order to succeed.” FastCompany.com

You once described the inventor's life as "one of failure." How so?
[Dyson:] I made 5,127 prototypes of my vacuum before I got it right. There were 5,126 failures. But I learned from each one. That's how I came up with a solution. So I don't mind failure. I've always thought that schoolchildren should be marked by the number of failures they've had. The child who tries strange things and experiences lots of failures to get there is probably more creative.

Not all failures lead to solutions, though. How do you fail constructively?
We're taught to do things the right way. But if you want to discover something that other people haven't, you need to do things the wrong way. Initiate a failure by doing something that's very silly, unthinkable, naughty, dangerous. Watching why that fails can take you on a completely different path. It's exciting, actually. To me, solving problems is a bit like a drug. You're on it, and you can't get off. I spent seven years on our washing machine [which has two drums, instead of one].

JP wrote something about failure recently and mentioned Esther Dyson's famous saying, 'Always make new mistakes'. (I have Esther Dyson's saying as a fridge magnet in both London and Wiltshire.) JP concluded:

Today, we are so enmeshed in blame cultures that organisations often get into Failure-Is-Not-An-Option syndrome. What happens in this syndrome is that people hide failure rather than prevent it, and over time that hiding culture gets deep into the organisation. This culminates in an even worse syndrome, The-Emperor’s-New-Clothes syndrome. Here, everyone knows that what they say is not true, yet no one does anything about it.

Without risk there is no learning. Without learning there is no life. We need to be careful about being too careful.