Failing smarter

Last month we ran a fascinating session on failure at the Churchill Club. It was prompted by a comment of a friend of mine who had been the commander of the Australian forces in the Solomon islands a couple of years ago. He said, “Of course failure is going to happen, so we give people room to fail in training.

The conversation on the evening covered a number of different views of failure that were food for thought, including:

Science needs failure. Its basic process, the scientific method, is to make a hypothesis then test it repeatedly. Each failure makes the hypothesis more robust. Scientific hypothesis are never proven, but each failure in trying to “prove it wrong” adds to its weight. Interestingly, science also recognises that failures can also have enormous value in an unexpected way. Known as serendipitous outcomes, there are too many examples to mention where something was invented by mistake. Consequently its accepted in research funding that interesting failures could likely occur through a new research direction.

The art world values failure, they call it creative accidents. In fact, some artists set out to deliberately fail hundreds of times, just to see what happens.

For the military failure is expected and the impacts are serious – failure causing death is all too likely an outcome. Therefore, individuals are given room to fail as much as they need in training so that they can get things right when it matters. This focus by the military on failure led to the formation of the first military staff college in Prussia in 1801 – its basic thrust was “let’s learn from our mistakes”.

But sadly, Australian business has a problem with failure. In a small market like Australia its impact is great, as compared to a large market like the US where the impact is generally small. Consequently it is rarely planned for, learnt from or even acknowledged.

But the kicker for the evening for me was this:

In science, research funding applicants are generally only successful around 20% of the time, but almost never on their first go. Clever researchers expect this, and consequently design their first round proposals to derive the maximum amount of feedback on what is wanted by the funding body when the expected failure occurs. They see the first failed application as the part of the process that determines exactly what’s wanted, but isn’t stated in the brief.

I think there is an awful lot to learn for us in business, from just that little idea.

Brendan Lewis is a serial technology entrepreneur having founded: Ideas Lighting, Carradale Media, Edion, Verve IT, The Churchill Club and Flinders Pacific. He has set up businesses for others in Romania, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Vietnam and is the sole Australian representative of the City of London for Foreign Direct Investment. Qualified in IT and Accounting, he has also spent time running an Advertising agency and as a Cavalry Officer with the Australian Army Reserve.


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