I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways it won’t work. – Thomas Edison
Failure in 2016
We have a modern national culture that despises failure. That’s not too strong a statement today. Everything from the health care insurance nightmare to ability to rent an apartment depends on a low risk approach to life and finances. Participation ribbons and trophies for every team show how much we dislike failure. Everyone’s a winner!
Why is this? Certainly it is not the case historically – one can see the pride with which we chronicle the business failures of Abraham Lincoln in textbooks and children’s stories. There was a time that failing and trying again was respected. Even through the early part of the 20th century, our great inventors and industrialists were comfortable with failure being part of the road to eventual success.
An inventor fails 999 times, and if he succeeds once, he’s in. He treats his failures simply as practice shots. – Charles Kettering
Path to Success
There are commonalities in the great historical failures. Those who achieved greatness did not fail in a random fashion. They had a plan – and modified it as data and situations changed. Look at the example of the Wright Brothers. Many of their contemporaries were better funded and more experienced, yet they were successful in creating their aircraft. Why? Certainly they were smart, and worked hard – but that wasn’t what differentiated them. Collection of data and modification of their approach was critical. They studied the field (their competition), and conducted experiment after experiment. Historical collections such as those at Carillon Park or Wright Cycle Co show models they created, miniature wind tunnels they invented to test their theories, and notebook after notebook filled with systemic observations.
Similar approaches can be seen with Charles Kettering and Thomas Edison. Kettering frequently commented on the struggle in teaching students to fail with purpose – gaining knowledge with each step. Edison inspired the creation of the first corporate R&D center at GE. Clear application of the scientific method to business and engineering problems.
Failing Better Today
These great figures in history were able to apply themselves completely to the task at hand. They were committed to solving problems and through great effort collected data and tested solutions. This is a model that you can follow. Don’t be afraid of failure and you can stand out from the masses! Find your business problem. Determine how to test your theory. There are many resources depending on the nature of your business. Anything from A/B testing for web sites to Six Sigma quality tools might be useful. A business analyst comes armed with a sophisticated toolbox and is a great option, but you don’t need to wait! You can start with a notebook and the scientific method. The general steps are provided for reference below. Just remember – a failure in the scientific method is still a success. You’ve proven what doesn’t work, and narrowed the field of possible choices. Good luck, and great failures!
Failure is always an option. – Adam Savage, Mythbusters
- Define a question (business problem)
- Gather information and resources (observe – check out existing knowledge or competitive landscape)
- Form an explanatory hypothesis – what do you think is the right answer?
- Test the hypothesis by performing an experiment and collecting data in a reproducible manner. Limit the scope and impact! Small steps.
- Analyze the data
- Interpret the data and determine steps forward.