When and why a “failure” is an “orphan”

First of all, I define a “failure” as an effort or combination of efforts by an individual or group that produces nothing of value.

Long ago, is reported to have said of an experiment that disappointed his research associates, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” When he died in 1931 he held 1,093 patents in his name, many of which were collaborations that he gratefully acknowledged.

My point is, there is substantial value in learning and then sharing what was not known before. That is what Edison meant when suggesting that we always “pass lots of failures” on  the so-called “road”  to ultimate success.

I was a child when I first heard someone say that “success has many parents but failure is always an orphan.” Over time I began to realize how true that is, especially in the business world.

The most successful organizations are those in which constant and continuous failure of small, low-risk, highly-visible experiments is encouraged and rewarded but only if lessons are learned from them and immediately shared with others.

This is the culture that Edison established with his research center in Menlo Park, New Jersey (1879).

This is what Peter Senge had in mind when defining a “total learning organization” in The Fifth Discipline (1990).

And this is what business leaders should actively and generously support, especially now when innovation or the lack of it usually determines if an organization thrives, merely survives for a while, or evaporates.


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