What do Sir James Dyson, the Mercedes F1 team, Pixar, Google and the airline industry have in common?
They’re hugely successful, yes, but the thing that links them is they never shy away from the ‘F’ word—Failure. Instead, they face and learn from their mistakes, errors and mishaps. So says Matthew Syed, award-winning Times journalist and best-selling author of ‘Black Box Thinking: Marginal Gains and the Secrets of High Performance’ (John Murray).
“We have an allergic attitude to failure,” he says. “We try to avoid it, cover it up and airbrush it out of our lives.
“For centuries, errors of all kinds have been considered embarrassing, morally egregious, almost dirty.
“This conception still lingers today. It is why … doctors reframe mistakes, why politicians resist running rigorous tests on their policies, and why blame and scapegoating are so endemic.”
This notion of failure needs to change, he writes. “We have to conceptualise it not as dirty and embarrassing, but as bracing and educative.”
That’s because success in business (as well as in sport and in our personal lives) can only happen when mistakes are confronted and learnt from and there’s a climate in which it’s safe to fail.
It’s what the airline industry has done so successfully, he says. Instead of concealing failure, the aviation industry has a system where failure is inherently valuable and data-rich, says Syed.
In fact, his ‘Black box thinking’ refers to the black box data recorders that all aircraft must carry to provide information in case of accidents. One box records instructions that are sent to all on-board electronic systems and the other records the voices in the cockpit.
“Mistakes are not stigmatised, but regarded as learning opportunities,” he says. After a crash, an independent team investigates.
“The interested parties are given every reason to cooperate since the evidence compiled by the [independent] accident investigation branch is inadmissible in court proceedings. This increases the likelihood of full disclosure.”
What’s more, after an investigation into an accident is completed, the report is made available for everyone.
“Every pilot in the world has free access to the data,” writes Syed. “This enables everyone to learn from the mistake, rather than just a single crew, or a single airline, or a single nation.”
Syed gives the example of United Airlines Flight 173 which took off from JFK International airport in New York on December 28, 1978, bound for Portland Oregon.
Just before the airplane went into land, the flight crew became convinced the landing gear hadn’t locked into place. They then spent so long trying to fix the problem that they ran out of fuel and had to crash-land into a residential area, killing eight people on board.
An investigation discovered that the flight engineer hadn’t been assertive enough in telling the Captain the fuel was running low. The Captain meantime was obsessed with trying to fix the landing gear problem and avoid giving passengers a bumpy landing.
As it turned out there had not been a problem with the landing gear in the first place.
Afterwards, new protocols were put in place and training methods were revised. As a result, nothing quite as bad has happened again.
So much so that flying on airplanes is now safer than any other form of travel because the industry investigates and learns from its mistakes.
“Openness and learning rather than blaming is the instinctive response – and system safety has been the greatest beneficiary,” Syed told Director magazine.
Dyson Vacuum Cleaners
Sir James, the designer, inventor and entrepreneur, is another committed to learning from failure.
He made 5,127 prototypes of his bagless vacuum cleaner before he got it right. This practice has obviously paid off because Sir James is now worth more than £3 billion.
“Creative breakthroughs always begin with multiple failures,” says Sir James. “…True invention lies in the understanding and overcoming of these failures, which we must learn to embrace.”
Without them, innovations won’t happen, he says. “Failures feed the imagination. You cannot have the one without the other.”
Great inventors always develop their insights not from an appraisal of how good everything is, but from what is going wrong, Sayed wrote in the Daily Mail.
Using Failure To Grow Your Business
Obviously, failure is only useful if it’s acted upon. “You can build motivation by breaking down the idea that we can all be perfect on the one hand, and by building up the idea that we can get better with good feedback and practice on the other,” says Syed.
Some of the world’s most innovative organisations like Pixar, the Mercedes F1 Team and Google “interrogate errors as part of their strategy for future success.”
Take Google’s decision to test which shade of blue in its advertising links in Gmail and Google search worked best, for example.
Rather than ask its designers to choose the shade of blue for those links, Google decided to run tests known as ‘1% experiments in which 1% of users were shown one blue and another in which 1% of users were shown another blue. Then Google went further and ran 40 other experiments showing all the shades of blue.
It paid off: Google found the perfect shade of blue (the one that users were more likely to click on) and made an extra $200 million a year in revenue.
Why Don’t Companies Embrace Failure?
One of the biggest problems in business is the collective attitude we have to failure, says Syed.
“We love to think of ourselves as smart people, so we find mistakes, failure and sub-optimal outcomes challenging to our egos,” Syed said in an interview with Director magazine. “But the reality is, when we’re involved in complex areas of human endeavour—and business is very complex—our ideas and actions not being perfect is an inevitability.
“If we’re threatened by our mistakes, and become prickly when people mention them, we don’t learn from them. We need to eradicate the idea that smart people don’t make mistakes.”
To really be successful, businesses need to encourage a company-wide failure-embracing culture which in turn will create a “process of dynamic change and adaptation”.
“Success happens through a willingness to engage with, and change as a result of, our failings. Get that right and everything else falls into place,” he says.
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