Victory Comes From Corrections, Not First Successes

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Late last night, Steve Blank tweeted the famous quote from Henry Ford (a notorious anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer, which does not take away from his market prowess, let alone manufacturing genius), "Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently." As I wrote earlier, agile development, in the words of Josh Mahowald, chief architect for cloud of Genesys, is nothing more or less than the opportunity to fail quickly and in small ways, and thus be available to correct, rather than spectacularly and later, when correction is extremely expensive, often impossible.

Put in other terms, Henry Ford (and whoever, in turn, inspired him), is the philosophical godfather of agile, of Amazon Web Services, of many of the now-accepted, to paraphrase many a hockey player, "fail early, fail often."

I, in turn, learned this lesson in the service. The best tank sharpshooter isn't the one who hits the target with the first shell. After all, if you toss a ~7kg / 15.5lb projectile through the air for 5km / 8miles, even the most accurate gunner with the best gunnery computer will be subject to changes in humidity, wind, heat, etc. The best sharpshooter is the one who makes the second shot. The ability to correct is what counts. The second shot is the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.

Although I have managed to (mostly) internalize this lesson in my business life - for example, my startup in 2000 failed for many reasons, but have worked hard to avoid falling prey to the same problems twice - I wonder at times if we do a good job inculcating  the lesson socially.

  • Education: My children came home the other day with their end-of-year report kids, and made their parents proud. Proud? They did really well, and they knew we were proud. This gives additional drive and incentive for them to do their best. But does it internalize the idea that failure is an embarrassment, since we would not be "proud"? Would we be less "proud" if they actually did terribly in some courses, but then corrected? 
  • Startups: The press - general, business and technology - as well as entertainment industry will idolize the successful startups, and learn their lessons. Use this growth methodology. Raise capital this way. Hire that way. The list goes on. The problem is, of course, success bias. The percentage of startups that actually succeeds is exceedingly small, by some estimates much less than 10%. With an almost-ten-to-one odds of failure, the important lessons are not from the companies that succeed... but the ones that fail.

As a business community and as educators of children, we need to find a way to inculcate acceptance of failure as a necessary step towards eventual success. Perhaps we need a new word for failure on the way to success. The key to more Thomas Edisons isn't brilliant success, it's the perseverance of one who said, "Why would I feel like a failure? And why would I ever give up? I now know definitively over 9,000 ways that an electric light bulb will not work. Success is almost in my grasp."