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10/7 2013

Making a “Brilliant Mistake” — and Finding Success in Failures

Are mistakes something to be avoided at all costs?  Absolutely not, according to author Paul Schoenmaker…

Schoenmaker, a professor at Wharton’s Mack Center for Technological Innovation, has recently published Brilliant Mistakes:  Finding Success on the Far Side of Failure.   In this book, Schoenmaker points-out that many so-called “colossal” mistakes have actually allowed companies to find new technologies, uncover untapped markets, develop completely new projects — and, in some cases, have even allowed a company to revolutionize itself.

In his book, Schoenmaker illustrates how a long list of inventions — including ATM machines, organic food, and tobacco-free cigarettes — were judged as major failures at the time, but eventually proved to be brilliant conceptualizations.   Schoenmaker states that there are many ideas floating around in corporate America that are being dismissed as foolish — but that are likely to be regarded as similarly brilliant in the future.

Schoenmaker argues that leaders need to focus on creating a corporate culture that allows for productive mistakes to occur.  Indeed, a leader (or a corporate culture) that is punitive about mistakes — or that shortchanges the importance of creating innovative approaches to problems, even if the approach is not successful — will soon find themselves suffering from an innovation gap.

For both managers and leaders, Schoenmaker suggests that there are two different ways of profiting from mistakes:

  • Being open to learning from professional and/or personal errors to identify new ways forward
  • Deliberately making mistakes — or challenging convention wisdom — as a way to speed-up learning in your organization

Leaders can use Brilliant Mistakes to change their views about the merits of making mistakes, and will also see numerous business examples of where mistakes have been used to an advantage by gifted leaders.  Leaders will also get a sense of what types of mistakes “to” make.

Coinciding with the release of his book, the Wharton School has also announced the formation of a “Brilliant Mistakes Contest”, where participants will be encouraged to share a personal or business mistake, describe what was learned from it, and discuss how it opened new opportunities.

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