Management Articles


 

Successful Failures

By: Jim Clemmer

Jim Clemmer is an international keynote speaker, workshop leader, author, and president of The CLEMMER Group, a North American network of organization, team, and personal improvement consultants based in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. His other bestsellers include Firing on All Cylinders: The Service/Quality System for High-Powered Corporate Performance, and his most recent book, Growing the Distance: Timeless Principles for Personal, Career, and Family Success. His web site is http://www.clemmer.net/


"To double your success rate, double your failure rate."
   
— Tom Watson, Sr., founder of IBM
In a small pub in the highlands of Scotland a group of fishermen gathered one afternoon to swap tales over a round of ale. One of them stretched his arms apart to show the big one that got away. At that very point, a waitress walked past carrying a tray of full ale glasses. The fisherman's wild gestures sent the tray smashing against the wall. The dark brew splashed on the white wall of the pub and began running down. The waitress and the fisherman tried to wipe the mess off the wall, but it had left an ugly dark stain. A man who had watched the whole scene from another table walked quietly over to the wall. With a brown pastel crayon he took from his pocket, he began to sketch. The entire pub watched in silent awe as a majestic stag with great spreading antlers magically took shape around the stain. The artist was Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, the top 19th British painter of animals.

Many discoveries and breakthroughs are made by accident. The history of innovation is a long list of failures that eventually led to bigger successes. The list includes products like Post-It-Notes, Pyrex cookware, Jello, Popsicles, the Walkman, Lifesavers, Coca Cola, Silly Putty, Kleenex, Levi jeans, Band-Aids, Corn Flakes, and runs on into the thousands. Accidental innovations and unplanned applications happen every day. Few of them ever amount to anything productive and useful. The inventors and companies that are able to capitalize on their "happy accidents" are those that are the most flexible and responsive to the unexpected opportunities before them. In Self Help, Samuel Smiles writes, "we often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do; and probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery."

Classified ad: "Parachute for sale. Only used once, never opened, small stain." When it comes to sky diving, if at first I don't succeed….my worries are over. Few learning experiences are that deadly. However, learning impaired people treat many new experiences as if they were. Fear of failure is a huge killer of innovation and learning. In Measure for Measure, William Shakespeare penned, "our doubts are traitors; And make us lose the good we oft might win; By fearing to attempt."

If I am going to continue growing and developing, I have got to embrace the idea of trying something and failing. That will take me much further than doing nothing and succeeding. Life doesn't come with any guarantees. Nothing is certain. There is no such thing as a sure thing. By taking few chances and not trying something new I will reduce my risk of failure. I will also reduce my chances of success. The British writer, Katherine Mansfield, implores us, "Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinion of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself."

"According to the theory of aerodynamics, as may be readily demonstrated through wind tunnel experiments, the bumblebee is unable to fly. This is because the size, weight, and shape of his body in relation to the total wingspread make flying impossible. But the bumblebee, being ignorant of those scientific truths goes ahead and flies anyway — and makes a little honey every day." I came across this poster hanging in a manufacturing plant years ago. It's a favorite because it captures another key characteristic of learning leaders; they refuse to be trapped by "conventional wisdom" or what others say is or isn't possible.

Highly effective leaders go against the odds — or just ignore them. It's a characteristic that the legendary inventor, Charles Kettering, called "intelligent ignorance." Among his many teachings about innovation, he provides this useful perspective on growing and developing, "research...is nothing but a state of mind — a friendly, welcoming attitude toward change; going out to look for change instead of waiting for it to come. Research, for practical people, is an effort to do things better ...the research state of mind can apply to anything — personal affairs or any kind of business, big or little."

One of The CLEMMER Group's four core values is "High Growth and Development." Here's how we express our expectations of each other and the people we consider adding to our team:

"We are insatiable learners on a steep continuous personal growth curve. We have a good balance of active and reflective learning. Active learning comes from exploring, searching, creating, and experimenting. Reflective learning comes from taking time out of daily operational pressures to review how well our personal, team, and organization improvement activities are working and to plan further changes. We are avid readers, researchers, and students in the fields of organization improvement, leadership development, and personal effectiveness."

"We are highly innovative and very agile. We set short-term plans, but use strategic opportunism as we learn our way to new products and services. Our journey of discovery means we always have an abundance of trials, pilots, and experiments underway in our restless search for the pathways that will take us ever closer to our vision and purpose. We share what's working, and what's not, very openly with each other to advance our team and corporate knowledge and experience."

© Copyright 2001 The CLEMMER Group

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