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General, Technology

Epic Fail

Failure has become something of a recurring theme of late.

I’m involved in a project which is exploring this theme. Our aim is to boost interest in technology, by allowing children to be more creative, by exploring the range of possibilities and not being held back or discouraged by the fear of failure.

So it’s encouraging to read that some of the worlds brightest believe that failure is an important educational tool – you learn more by getting things wrong.

James Dyson

James Dyson: Image/www.dyson.co.uk

James Dyson, he of eponymous cyclone vacuum fame, has just penned a rather good post in Wired Magazine all about failure. I briefly mentioned it in TWTWTW.

In most instances society regards failure as a negative, something to be avoided at all costs. Psychologically we tend to react in the same way – that feeling in the pit of your stomach, not unlike a washing machine spin cycle, when your sports team loses; you fail a test or make some horrendous mistake.

But Dyson suggests that perhaps we should re-evaluate our approach to failure.

But Dyson suggests that perhaps we should re-evaluate our approach to failure.

On the road to invention, failures are just problems that have yet to be solved – James Dyson

And he has ample proof – from the point at which Dyson arrived at his notion that a cyclone would be the best way to boost the suction of his normal vacuum cleaner to actually launching the product – there was a period of 15 years of constant tweaking design. He made a whopping 5,127 prototypes for the DC01. The company is now on its 35th model.

The ability to learn from mistakes — trial and error — is a valuable skill we learn early on. Recent studies show that encouraging children to learn new things on their own fosters creativity. Direct instruction leads to children being less curious and less likely to discover new things. – James Dyson

Another advocate of the try everything, see what works and what doesn’t school of thought is Dan Gillmor. An advocate of entrepreneurial journalism, he’s a bigger advocate of experimentation.  We all know that journalism and the media as a whole is an industry undergoing massive change.

The internet has wiped out traditional business models and the race is on to find the way to effectively monetize content and support the journalism that readers say they value. Gillmor argues that it’s also an opportunity.

In a detailed interview in Mediashift Gillmor outlines his views for the future of news journalism – and no surprise it’s all about experimentation. It’s about trying any number of different approaches to making money from the written word and seeing what can work. He readily acknowledges that most of these brave new experiments are going to hit the wall, they’re going to fail. But the lessons those failures will generate will be invaluable.

It’s an idea that is definitely gaining traction.

I found myself speaking to some entrepreneurs earlier this week who echoed the same view.  They had been to Silicon Valley, Boston and Washington as part of the Kauffman Entrepreneurship programme.

The programme allowed them to be immersed in the US start-up culture. Talking to the start-up founder, one of the core learning outcomes was that failure, or at least the ability to learn from failure, is something to be embraced.  It’s a cultural shift that is only just beginning to find traction in the UK.

The result is that the entrepreneurs (at least the ones I met) while recognising the pitfalls of failure, weren’t afraid of it. To them iteration is important. They stressed the importance of learning by trial and error, listening to feedback and trying again. What was important is the emphasis they placed on embracing the positive aspects of failure. It’s not about celebrating or forgiving failure, it’s about harnessing it to enable experimentation and innovation.

It was a distinction made in The Economist last week.  Failure should become a business process, a tool used in the same way that UAT and focus groups are.

The message – it’s Ok to fail as long as you a) fail fast b) manage it correctly c) learn from it and d) take action.

Thomas Edison: Image/Library of Congress

It’s easy to think that learning lessons from failure is a radical new way of thinking. But it’s not a new one.

American inventor Thomas Alva Edison was making the same claim almost 100 years ago, discussing his invention of the lightbulb:

Results? Why, man, I have gotten lots of results! If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is often a step forward…. – Edison

Epic Fail has come to be a popular net meme, but perhaps we’ll be looking at it a little differently in the years to come…



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