Unproductive failure?

My friend, Lane Meyer, directed me to an excellent article, Fail often, fail well, in The Economist.

I’ve been posting enough recently on failure, that I have decided to add it as a category for this blog.

The Economist article reinforces what I have written about, that failure is necessary to have a chance at success and that the stigma on failure is unproductive.

It also makes a distinction on failure that I’ve been thinking about lately as well.

But simply “embracing” failure would be as silly as ignoring it. Companies need to learn how to manage it. Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School argues that the first thing they must do is distinguish between productive and unproductive failures. There is nothing to be gained from tolerating defects on the production line or mistakes in the operating theatre.

That’s a good distinction to make.  The article gives this example of unproductive failure:

James McNerney, a former boss of 3M, a manufacturer, damaged the company’s innovation engine by trying to apply six-sigma principles (which are intended to reduce errors on production lines) to the entire company, including the research laboratories.

I’m not sure I’d agree with that.  With 20/20 hindsight, this appears to be an obvious unproductive failure.  But, I’m not sure the impact of six sigma on innovation was well known prior to McNerney’s trial and from that trial we all learned something — that six sigma is a great tool for consistency in operations but not so good where we need leeway for experimentation.  Thanks Jim.

I think a good example of an unproductive failure is running up credit card debt to buy clothes, cars and electronics and then declaring bankruptcy.  Or promoting a high school assistant football coach to a head coaching job in the NFL.  There’s a very small chance that some form of success could come from these actions — but it’d be a fluke.

While I’m not sure there are any rules to distinguish upfront a productive and unproductive trial, I do believe the distinction is a good idea to keep in mind when trying something.

At the very least you should be asking if the trial, or something like it, has been tried before and what the results were.  If it was a failure, then it’s good to think about why and why you think your trial may not be.

This won’t always be definitive and prior similar failures do not need to keep you from trying again, but considering such things can help set expectations and keep you disciplined to staying with a low risk trial.  Many times I’ve seen people, convinced of their own brilliance, bypass the trial phase (or worse, ignore or misread the results from the trial) to invest heavily in something to become a hero, usually becoming the goat.

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