Failure Is The New Success

by , Oct 6, 2009, 12:00 PM
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Last week, a company called The Department of Doing hosted the first ever TEDx conference in New Zealand -- and I had the doubly profound privilege of both speaking and attending. My presenter colleagues were truly TED-worthy: people like Glenn Compain, a policeman who works with gang kids to offer them something better, and Ray Avery, whose inexpensive medical innovations are quite literally saving millions of lives in developing countries.

One of the speakers, a guy from Microsoft by the name of Nigel Parker, focused his talk on reframing our perception of failure: in the absence of failure, he claimed, success is impossible.

This claim is consistent with our experience. Every success story we know is made sweeter because of the need to overcome some failure. Edison, Einstein, Sony, Apple, Microsoft... they've all seen their work crash and burn. Whether the idea was crap or the market wasn't ready, great innovators have all had their share of it.

And a new series of interviews with Google staffers on Business Week reinforces the idea that Nigel might just be onto something. Take for example the comments from Amit Singhal, who runs Google's core ranking team. When Rob Hof asked him how they avoid getting stuck in a rut, Singhal responded:

It's the openness to innovation, the desire to dismantle status quo... No one should feel, if I dismantle the current search system, someone will get upset. That's the wrong environment. When I came, I dismantled [Google cofounders] Larry and Sergey's whole ranking system. That was the whole idea. I just said, That's how I think it should be done, and Sergey said, Great!
Think for a moment about how different this culture is from a typical, traditional business model. What Singhal is saying is that if you can get my product to fail, by definition you will have come up with something better.

A culture like that doesn't come naturally. It flows from the top. It requires Sergey saying, "Great!" When Singhal was asked whether anyone can dismantle his ranking system, he responded, "I truly hope so. And I hope it's someone inside Google." Sergey has set the example, and the culture has permeated. The ability to embrace failure allows them to accept that there can always be something better; if they're lucky, it'll be one of them who comes up with it. This theme came across as well in Hof's earlier interview with Udi Manber, VP of Technology for Core Search. Manber points out that Google runs around 10 experiments for every change that gets launched, and then describes their weekly meetings:

The crux of those meetings is usually: what's wrong, how can we fix it, how can we use this insight to do other things... what people try to achieve from those talks is to try to discover some things that may not work well and try to use what they've done in other areas. Sometimes we bring other groups and grill them. And sometimes we bring our own groups and grill them. But it's all productive. We're not saying "you're bad."

Manber's description sums up successful failure. If you take failure not as something "bad", but as a starting point towards something better; if you can continually look at what went wrong, continually ask why, continually ask how you can improve or what you can learn to apply elsewhere, then every failure will be a valuable stepping stone. Building failure into your business model won't guarantee that your company will be the next Google -- but it will definitely improve your chances.

Good luck. I hope you fail.

0 comments on "Failure Is The New Success".

  1. Kent Vickery from Revolution Media
    commented on: October 6, 2009 at 12:48 p.m.

    How leadership embraces failure - either as an essential step to innovation or as an end to itself, signals the organizational response to uncertainty. Loved the post.

  2. David Murdico from Supercool Creative
    commented on: October 6, 2009 at 2:19 p.m.

    Love this article!

    David Murdico
    Creative Director
    http://www.supercoolcreative.com
    @davidmurdico

  3. Nigel Parker from Microsoft
    commented on: October 6, 2009 at 5:58 p.m.

    Hi Kaila,

    Thanks for recognising this important and mostly ignored topic. I have posted a video of the rehersal of my presentation at http://bit.ly/failvid and also on slideshare at http://bit.ly/failpres for people to watch.

    Nigel Parker

  4. Susan Breidenbach
    commented on: October 23, 2009 at 7:58 p.m.

    Yes. Remember, Babe Ruth didn't just hold the homerun record; he held the strikeout record. You can't get the hits without the strikes. Also, the guided-missile analogy is useful here: A guided missile reaches its target by making a series of mistakes.

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