Relying on outmoded ideas about success and failure stands in the way of your ability to innovate, compete and stay ahead of the curve.
Whoever Makes the Most Mistakes Wins: The Paradox of Innovation
By Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes
Free Press, June 2002
144 pages, $22
You can practically hear the crystals and wind chimes playing in the background: "Success, failure—who is to say?" "The biggest regrets in life are for the risks we didn't take, not for the ones we took and lost." Ignore that New Age noise. They distract from the far more important point of this book, which is this: "Relying on outmoded ideas about success and failure stands in the way of your ability to innovate, compete and stay ahead of the curve." Or, to reduce the idea to a bumper sticker you may have seen: "If you're not making mistakes, you're not trying hard enough." That's the central argument put forth here by Farson, in his follow-up to Management of the Absurd: Paradoxes in Leadership, and Keyes, author of Chancing It: Why We Take Risks.
The reasons people are too tentative at work are obvious. Rare is the corporate culture that rewards failure, so there is little incentive for employees to stick their necks out. And the problem, ironically, is worse at successful companies, the authors contend. "Doing too well breeds an excess of self-imitation. A culture of caution follows. In such a culture there is no reward, and much penalty for taking chances." The result is that successful companies ignore the next big thing, whether it is Western Union in the 19th century ignoring the telephone or IBM Corp. overlooking the PC until the 1980s.
How can you make companies, and the people who work inside them, more adventurous? The authors offer an intriguing and paradoxical solution: In order to stop demonizing failure, we need to stop deifying success. "Stressing winning inhibits daring. Those who take genuine risks know that failure is the norm, success the exception," they write. To prove the point, the authors turn to the most unlikely of sources: successful sports coaches. Their key witness is pro football's Vince Lombardi, the man frequently cited as the poster boy for the belief that the only choices are victory or death. Lombardi's true position was actually quite different, as the authors noted: "I have been quoted as saying, 'Winning is the only thing,'" says Lombardi. "That is a little out of context. What I said was, 'Winning is not everything, but making the effort to win is.'"
The authors' argument is that if you concentrate less on winning as the ultimate aim, you will be able to focus on the things you have to do to be successful. The result, as UCLA's John Wooden, perhaps the greatest college basketball coach of all time, explains in the text, is that winning then becomes a by-product.
The authors put in references to how corporations can change their attitude toward taking risks (although they could have included more). They haul out the oft-told tale of how Jack Welch, when chairman of GE, sent TVs to every member of a team that created a new lamp design that didn't work out, to encourage them to try—and perhaps fail—again. That's the approach the authors hope to engender companywide.
Still, it is clear that they don't have much faith in the average board of directors suddenly encouraging more mistakes. That's where the New Age stuff comes in. Since they have little hope that encouragement to fail will come from on high, their idea is to encourage change at the grassroots level by tying the need for experimentation to the personal growth of every employee.
Will the authors succeed? Since organizations by definition are risk adverse, they probably won't. And that's too bad.
Paul B. Brown is the author of 13 business books including the international bestseller Customers for Life. Doubleday will publish an updated version of the book, written with Carl Sewell, this fall.
This article was originally published on 06-01-2002