An Innovation Challenge: Learning From Failure

I’m still working my way through Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz. It’s a very interesting book, and nicely written. I’ll tell you more about it when I’m done. In th meantime, I’d like to share a fantastic quote from Schulz, which is in her review of Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World by Tina Rosenberg.

Schulz uses the review to critique Big Idea Books, and her argument applies to a majority of business books too. Here is one of the key issues that she raises (I added the emphasis):

Solutions are not one size fits all—they are, in fact, maddeningly bespoke. That’s because neither problems nor people are fungible. Rosenberg is a brilliant reporter, but here she exhibits the characteristic blind spot of the blind-spot-obsessed Big Idea books. Like totalizing religious or political stories, these books promise to hand over the master key that will unlock our lives. Or, more precisely, they tell us that we have had the key all along, but that we have been holding it upside down.

To which I say: key-shmey. There is no rule, process, peer group, leader, or best seller that can absolve us of the responsibility of thinking our way through life on our own two feet. What irks me most about this infinite parade of gigundo solutions isn’t their glibness or even the borderline theology (of some) and borderline Babbitry (of others) involved in promising audiences easy, happy, profitable ideas. Nope. What irks me is that when you rigidly apply grand theories to everybody, sooner or later everybody feels like nobody, whether you’re in Communist Belgrade or the local DMV. There is a reason we call such systems soul-crushing: They ignore or annihilate individual difference and inner life.

This is the problem we have in dealing with complex systems. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions. If anyone tells you that there is, beware.

Furthermore, there in complex systems, there are nearly always unintended consequences to action. These two things together make it very difficult to plan out actions in advance.

This is why I like Schulz’ advice to think our way through life on our own two feet – it’s the only way to go. A big part of this is experimenting. One of the themes of Being Wrong is that wrongness is a natural state. We can learn from error, in fact, we must learn from error as this is the only way to improve.

I ran across a great website today called Admitting Failure. They are trying to use the site to help international development efforts learn from things that don’t work in other contexts. Here is their reasoning:

The development community is failing… to learn from failure. Instead of recognizing these experiences as learning opportunities, we hide them away out of fear and embarrassment.

No more. This site is an open space for development professionals who recognize that the only “bad” failure is one that’s repeated. Those who are willing to share their missteps to ensure they don’t happen again. It is a community and a resource, all designed to establish new levels of transparency, collaboration, and innovation within the development sector.

Get involved – share failures, build knowledge and encourage others to do the same – so we all benefit, today.

We have to take failure seriously precisely because there are no one-size-fits-all solutions to problems. Contexts are always slightly different, so not all lessons will transfer from one arena to another. Nevertheless, if we embrace the messiness of the world, we’ll see that we don’t need grand theories. We just need to try things, and learn from what works and what doesn’t.

I’m pretty sure that this approach will work for, well, nearly everyone.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

8 thoughts on “An Innovation Challenge: Learning From Failure

  1. Schulz’ quote captures exactly how I’ve felt about Big Idea books. I had not quite put my finger of what it was, but she nailed it. Thanks for featuring it.

    As to Admitting Failure, that same thinking applies to every industry/practice I can think of. Software development, for example, could use a site like this. The Agile movement is a step in this direction, but we need more of it.

    Thank you for a hella post!

  2. Thanks for the link Dwight – I hadn’t seen that. It’s not an unusual approach to dealing with mistakes though, unfortunately.

    Glad that the quote hit home Matt – it’s a terrific book review from Schulz. I’m really coming to like the way that she writes.

  3. The Admitting Failure site is very interesting, thanks for sharing. I think the idea of an online platform is great. Because failure is a sensitive topic for many, a website provides a shielding effect for those who may be more reluctant to share their stories.

    We have to learn from our failures and value our mistakes if we want to foster collaboration and innovation within in our firms. Check out our blog featured in Harvard Business Review about how Today’s Innovation Can Rise from Yesterday’s Failure:

  4. Thanks for the comment & for the link Lorie. I agree with you about the online platform – there are also some social risks involved with it, but it definitely has good potential as a forum for this type of discussion.

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