Failure is an integral part of progress and an element which has a direct correlation to the sustainability and longevity of any entity.
Nowadays, the industries being disrupted are littered with entities whose willingness to fail withered as a result of their growing success. The adage states “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”; but is this widespread conventional wisdom really the wisest perspective to adopt? Resting on one’s laurels results in cementing of a position and thereby creates a disposition to stagnate.
We see the opposite often enough as well. Google has not only endured, but grown many times over in the past decade and a half. With many notable successes under it’s belt, it’s astonishing number of failures doesn’t get mentioned often enough.
Google ‘Google Graveyard’ to see how many business ideas and units Google has voluntarily shuttered. However, a convincing argument can be made that Google’s willingness to constantly expand it’s horizons has enabled it to stay relevant as the landscape shifts around it. More on that later.
The results are startling irrespective of the scope of the entity.
New York City’s Transport Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan has been instrumental in one of the most interesting, ambitious and highly visible government-led experiments of change in recent memory.
Times Square in Manhattan is one of the busiest traffic junctions in the world. On average, 350,000 people walk through and across it daily, along with thousands of cars. The traffic patterns hadn’t been reevaluated since the 1950’s. Using traffic cones, plants, paint and garden chairs, the NYC government initiated a six month long pilot project in which it redrew and re-segmented the famed intersection and actually removed traffic lanes to accommodate more pedestrians and create more public space.
Traditional thinking would surmise that it would lead to more congestion and more accidents. However, pedestrian injuries declined 35%, travel times improved 17%, five flagship stores opened and retail rents doubled, all the while creating more than 2 acres of public space in a seemingly congested and maximized area. The temporary nature of the materials and the project made it quick, economical and convenient to test a theory which had enormous ramifications.
This is not too dissimilar from the Lean approach adopted by startups today, as it takes the guesswork out of hypothesis validation and enables organizational pilot projects to quickly and economically test the viability and the feasibility of a project while simultaneously reducing the learning curve drastically.
I’m tempted to talk about Apple’s renaissance and Steve Jobs’s outrageous decision to suspend production of all Apple products to focus on a music player, but Amazon is another fantastic example. Defying the conventional wisdom of positioning and brand dilution, Bezos forged ahead with a grander plan and increased the scope of Amazon’s operations beyond that of a web-based bookstore; or was it really a grander plan? Did he know with certainty that Amazon would be able to compete with brick-and-mortar stores in electronics, clothing, shoes, video rentals, and hardware?
Recently, Jeff Bezos unveiled another unconventional initiative; an unmanned delivery drone capable of delivering packages weighing under 5 lbs. to any destination within a ten mile radius of a fulfillment center, within 30 minutes.
The internet has since come alive with skeptics and competitors. Parodies have made the rounds where animations show drones being shot down and robbed. Privacy activists are shouting about gloom and doom. Senators are divisive and busy churning out legislation moulding the framework for drone operation. Not to be relegated to a bystander, UPS has issued a statement that it too is evaluating drone-based delivery techniques. Many are worried not only about the loss of income for delivery companies like FedEx and UPS, but also about the employment redundancies this will create. All this at this juncture when no one even knows if such an initiative will be legally permitted. All this chatter serves a purpose as it leads to something; forward movement.
Despite the technology being several years away due to regulations and legislation for commercial drone deployment, the proof of concept reveals many insights and pushes the boundaries by keeping all stakeholders on their toes.
Decorated Apple veteran Tony Fadell left Apple to pursue his idea of disrupting the home automation market which culminated in a startup called Nest, which proactively monitored the thermostat of homes in North America. A market many with orthodox thinking would consider to have limited potential yet Google just bought Nest, for $3.2 billion, in cash.
Fadell was already a very rich man (presumably because of AAPL stock) and by virtue of being on the founding design team of the iPod and the iPhone, had no reason to worry about job security or his retirement plans. Yet he walked away to experiment with something which might not have been successful at all, purely of his own volition.
These three different anecdotes reiterate the same point; that willingness to fail results in momentum and subsequent successes.
The Kelley brothers (IDEO) advocate crafting a failure resume first which unlocks the key to career, professional and personal advancement, as primary learning of one’s mistakes isn’t institutionalized, but experiential. The realization, they contend, prevents repetition of past mistakes and infuses one with a revitalized and alternative perspective.
Pakistan, however, isn’t willing to fail. The government, businesses and for the most part citizens are content with passing the buck on and as a result, the entire country is perpetually swimming in a sea of mediocrity. Look back at the NYC example and contrast that with the provincial or federal government. How many years of bureaucratic studies and proposals would it take to undertake an exercise of similar magnitude? and how long would the work take and how much would it actually cost? How much innovation is taking place in the private sector with nimble organizations pushing the envelope to tailor solutions which would benefit the society, city and the country?
In corporate alignment exercises, we often see a widening gulf between separate factions. These differences are neither meant to be contested or celebrated. Rather, seamless unification to a common goal is the desired outcome. Innovation, reengineering and data are 3 tools I constantly employ to enable entities to achieve that objective. Why? because data with a high level of integrity doesn't lie and results cannot be masked if transparency is a fundamental pillar of design. How much of this exists in the country’s fabric today?
The world lost one of its brightest luminaries recently in Nelson Mandela. Something the late, great man said is pertinent to this post as it highlights his resilience, fortitude and perseverance in his plight towards his ideal.
“Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again” - Nelson Mandela
The writer is a technology advisor and strategist.