The Genius of Screwups

One of my Sunday addictions, along with a triple hazelnut espresso, is “Corner Office,” Adam Bryant’s weekly interview of a bigshot CEO. Here’s the strange thing: At some point in each interview, every single CEO shares the same nugget of wisdom: the crucial importance of mistakes, failures, and setbacks. (Above, see Richard Branson of Virgin talking about the importance of being willing to fail.)

It’s kind of surreal when you think about it: a chorus of the world’s most successful businesspeople, waxing eloquent about how fantastically useful it is to screw up. Here’s Dreamworks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg:

“If you don’t make failure acceptable, you can’t have [movies that are] original and unique. And so in a world today that punishes, brutally punishes, any of us for failure, it’s the single most important quality that I think we work so hard to provide for our 2,000 employees, the understanding that they are expected to take risks.”

And here’s John Chambers of Cisco:

“I learned another lesson from Jack Welch. It was in 1998, and at that time we were one of the most valuable companies in the world. I said, “Jack, what does it take to have a great company?” And he said, “It takes major setbacks and overcoming those.” Then, in 2001, we had a near-death experience. We went from the most valuable company in the world to a company where they questioned the leadership. And in 2003, he called me up and said, “John, you now have a great company.” I said, “Jack, it doesn’t feel like it.” But he was right.”

Okay, fine. We hear this kind of advice all the time: learn from your mistakes, don’t be afraid of risk, be resilient, blah blah blah. We tend to tune it out in part because we see it as moral advice — advice on how to have good character. But let’s look at it a different way. The advice they’re giving isn’t just moral. It’s neural.

What I mean is this: mistakes create unique conditions of high-velocity learning that cannot be matched by more stable, “successful” situations. When it comes to building fast, beautiful neural circuits, mistakes aren’t really mistakes — they’re information. They are  the navigation points from which those circuits are constructed, wire by wire. The lesson is that business operates by exactly the same evolutionary principles as sports or art or math or music: we have to take risks, make mistakes, screw up in order to build better brains.

Of course, all screw-ups are not created equal. You’ll notice that the CEOs aren’t talking about thrashing around blindly, but rather making purposeful reaches toward specific goals — as you would if you whack a golf ball toward a hole, figured out why you missed, and hit it again.

The real trick is creating an organizational culture where this kind of reaching is not only possible, but actively encouraged and supported — a rare feat in this perfectionist world of ours. I’ve witnessed good examples of these kinds of cultures at KIPP schools, Honda, and Suzuki music education.

Where else have you found them?