Writer Suggests Failing Until You Can’t Fail Anymore
Ralph Keyes of Yellow Springs, Ohio has co-written the perfect gift for someone who has been fired, laid off or upbraided for concocting a bold new project that tanked. Whoever Makes the Most Mistakes Wins: The Paradox of Innovation (Free Press, $22) is an anthem to lead balloons, a paean to flops.
“The fastest way to succeed is to double your failure rate,” said Keyes, quoting Thomas Watson Sr. of IBM.
The writer — who began work on the book three years ago with Richard Farson, author of Management of the Absurd — set out to study how companies deal with innovations that falter.
“3M has a strong failure-tolerant culture,” he noted. “They encourage their people not to be defensive about their failures.”
More than one presumed failure at 3M later turned out to be a success,
Keyes said. “This guy at 3M was trying to develop a really strong adhesive. He came up with a very wimpy adhesive. Then he discovered that, although it was a weak adhesive, it would re-adhere.”
Unsure of what to do, the researcher took the result to a free-for-all brainstorming session called Tech Forum.
A 3M staff member seeking a non-slip, removable marker for a church hymnal thought the adhesive perfect.
Post-it notes were thus created.
Similarly, Scotchgard was developed at 3M after a researcher spilled an experimental fluid on her shoe: The water she used to try to clean up the spill simply beaded.
“So-called accidents,” Keyes said, “have been wholly or partly responsible for products such as Gore-Tex, nylon, Teflon, Silly Putty, penicillin, shatterproof glass and the microwave oven.”
Such inventions evolve because of companies that are willing to make mistakes.
The fear of failure, Keyes suggested, often leads to failure.
“Do you remember Railway Express?” he asked. “If they had had the vision to see the future of air express, they would today be FedEx.
Polaroid, which sought bankruptcy protection in 2001, “did wonderful with instant photography, but they should have looked ahead at digital photography. There is a real danger in relying on what succeeded in the past to build your future.”
The issue isn’t just how companies handle failure but how individuals do, too.
“Country singer Joe Diffie said that the best year of his life was the one in which he lost his job at a foundry, got divorced, totaled his pickup and was audited by the IRS,” Keyes writes.
“With so little to lose, Diffie left Oklahoma for Nashville” — and launched a career in music.
What’s important to understand, Keyes said, is the relativity of both failure and success.
Borrowing from Kipling, he pointed out that triumph and disaster should be approached as impostors.
“In 1929, the year Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel; Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms; and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury were published, novelist Julia M. Peterkin won the Pulitzer for her now-long-forgotten novel Scarlet Sister Mary.
“Daring leads to loss more often than gain.”
Unfortunately, in tough economic times, daring is sometimes replaced by caution and wariness.
The willingness to take risks goes out the window.
Failure is part of the game, said Keyes, quoting NBA star Michael Jordan:
“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over again in my life.
“And that is why I succeed.”