Exploiting Chaos -- and Celebrating Failure

Posted by: Jessie Scanlon on September 8, 2009

In the run-up to President Obama’s speech to school children, NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” hosted a conversation with two high school principals. Both were clearly smart, empathetic, and hardworking. But my shoulders froze when I heard one of them say, “we don’t accept failure.”

Where would we be if Thomas Edison, who failed one thousand times before he invented the lightbulb, had been told that failure is unacceptable?

The reality is that that principal isn't alone in his thinking. Our educational system, our culture more broadly, and yes -- most corporations -- demonize failure. Yet the individuals and companies that have learned to expect failure and to learn from it, are often incredibly successful.

The Edison example and its lesson on the value of failure is but one from the new book by innovation expert and trend guru Jeremy Gutsche called Exploiting Chaos. (Here, see a slide show of 24 ideas from the book.)

"In times of chaos," Gutsche writes, "the deck gets reshuffled and the rules of the game are changed. To thrive, companies must learn not to create structure and stability, but rather, to adapt quickly." Gutsche offers readers four tactics to improve their ability to adapt quickly: develop a culture of revolution, identify opportunities by trend hunting, use proven innovation practices such as ideation and prototyping, and create viral marketing.

The book is a quick read, with lots of graphics, oversized headlines on each page, and memorable quotes from the likes of Peter Drucker, Warren Buffet, and Steve Jobs. It is designed so that one could just flip through the pages reading the headlines, though the most interesting material requires a a full reading.

Perhaps the most original material comes in the section on trend hunting, which isn't surprising given that Gutsche is the founder of TrendHunter.com, a network/guide to the hip and new that boasts 10 million monthly views. Gutsche teaches readers how to find new trends and walks them through a business challenge -- design a hip hotel -- to show, specifically, how trends can be used to develop and hone a unique new offering.

Though as I realized when I heard the high school principal talk about not accepting failure, even the book's less original lessons -- such as "Make failure a part of every day" -- are worth being reminded of.

Reader Comments

Laurie Riedman

September 10, 2009 10:46 AM

I'm with you! That comment about failure from the principal would have made me freeze too Jessie! I love a quote from creativity expert Edward De Bono "It is better to have enough ideas for some of them to be wrong, than to be always right by having no ideas at all."

Without taking risks -- and possibly failing -- from time to time -- we wouldn't be inventing new things and growing and learning.

Khaja Ansari

September 19, 2009 11:47 AM

There is turbulence and uncertainty throughout the global economic system- sub prime mortgages, credit crunch, bail out of an investment firms and banks, stock prices down, and recession continues. The cascading effect of slow down then effects all organizations. What can organizations do to hold onto the declining volume?
Many people talk of innovation but are silent how we become innovative. To me it is simple. Curiosity leads to creativity and creativity leads to innovation. If curiosity is so important, we are silent and do not discuss about curiosity. To me develop curiosity we should develop
1. Good observation
2. Asking questions
3. No negative judgment
4. Confidence
Today, with all the problems in the world, Toyota is progressing well because they follow the above principles and make the organization a learning organization
khaja ansari
949-748-9584
Lean and management consultant

Jason Fleming

September 21, 2009 6:17 PM

I haven't read the book yet, however the article's point is well made. Taking it one step further; a group of companies whose culture is one where failures are highly punitive and then expecting grand innovation just isn't logical. One of the required components of innovation is risk taking. In an environment where punishment for failure has gone so far to create a CYA management strategy which extends to the upper reaches of a large corporation, the result is a company that is stagnant, talent goes unutilized. Until companies are willing to trust their employees to first be courageous in their ideas, second make mistakes, third learn from those mistakes, innovation will always be out of reach. Funny, these days most companies actually outsource innovation, even the most innovative large corporations more often innovate through purchasing small companies which have developed some bit of fantastic technology. Where are the brave large companies which readily have the resources to go out on a limb to create something new, something that changes everything? Oh yeah.....they are paying dividends.....

Ralph Heath

October 24, 2009 10:55 AM

Excellent post. I am the author of Celebrating Failure: The Power of Taking Risks, Making Mistakes and Thinking Big (www.celebratingfailure.com). The principal who said we don't accept failure is absolutely the problem and perhaps representative of where I think the negative attitude toward failure started (in our schools). Failure is an essential step on the road to success. Failure should be embraced and celebrated, not feared or not accepted.

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What comes next? The Bloomberg Businessweek Innovation and Design blog chronicles new tools for creativity and collaboration, innovation case studies in both the corporate and social sectors, and the new ideas that have the power to change the way things have always been done.

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