Do colossal mistakes, also have the opportunity to result in game-changing innovations? That is one of the questions that Paul J.H. Schoemaker, research director of Wharton's Mack Center for Technological Innovation and chairman and founder of consulting firm Decision Strategies International, has been exploring throughout his career. Recently he was interviewed by Stephen J. Kobrin, a Wharton management professor and executive director of Wharton Digital Press, about his view on failure. Here are the highlights from the interview "Paul J.H. Schoemaker's 'Brilliant Mistakes': Finding Opportunity in Failures"
A brilliant mistake is an action you take or a prediction you make that turns out to be wrong. This hurts you initially, but then it also opens up new vistas, and it may result in innovation and discovery. You start to see the world -- or yourself -- differently. For example: You get fired from a job unexpectedly and it prompts a lot of learning. Or you enter a new market or a new technology, and initially, many things don't work out well, but the benefits eventually make that "mistake" more than compensate for its cost.
If you ask successful people in business what they learned the most from, they tend to say, "My mistakes." The next question I ask is, "So why not make a few more mistakes? If they are so valuable, why leave this up to chance?"
You have to make mistakes carefully and strategically. Most people are risk averse, which means that they play it quite safe and they don't explore as widely around their assumptions, or their mental models, as they perhaps should. Organizations exacerbate this because they reward people for results most of the time, and not so often on good intentions or good process for exploration. If your intention is to change a business model or if you're in a new environment, I think you should have more tolerance for mistakes than is typically the case in companies.
Under the old frame of mind, if we had done a cost-benefit analysis or a rate of return on the investment, we would have rejected it. We would have said, "This is not a good thing to do." But just like David Ogilvy brilliantly ran advertisements that he thought would not work, to test his own views about advertising, it's important to make the best decision you can, whether you're hiring people or you're launching products. If you have been hammered by life a little bit and accumulated some wisdom about the limits of your knowledge, then there should be a part of your brain that says, "I don't have all the answers. I don't have a full understanding of the situation." You should permit a little bit of error to experience discovery that seems accidental but really is strategic as well.
Some people would say that once you have made a decision, the die is cast. But most managers realize that the first decision is just that -- the first decision -- and you have many more opportunities to make midstream adjustments, whether you hire people or launch a new product. Apart from the immediate benefits, the longer-term learning can also be of such a magnitude that it dwarfs the original cost.
There is a visceral reaction to mistakes. We use expressions like "eating your words" and being "sick to my stomach" when something [goes] wrong. Be willing to learn from surprises. If it is a positive surprise, if something good happens to us, we happily talk about it with others and we dwell on it. Mistakes you want to suppress. The challenge for leaders in companies is to create cultures where people actually get the benefit of the tuition that the company already has paid, namely, the mistake.
Read the complete interview between Paul J.H. Schoemaker and Stephen Korbin.