Better Than New

You can learn from failure without failing by morepete
May 21, 2007, 4:21 pm
Filed under: Innovators

By Pete Mortensen

Fortune online has a reader-submitted Q&A with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. It’s a very informative interview, but my favorite part comes in the way Hastings talks about the well-worn track of fast failure.

In your opinion, do you learn more from failures or successes? Give us an example. Juan Saldivar, Monterrey, Mexico

With failures, you learn one of 99 things to avoid. So they are not that useful. I think it is more useful to learn from others’ failures. An example: AOL failed to adapt to the broadband world and clung to its narrowband dial-up specialty.

Though I’m slightly confused by the AOL example, I agree with the overall principle here. Learning from failure means a lot more than going out and screwing up everything. It means really understanding what has and has not worked in the past for others and then figuring out how to do it better yourself.

The first Macintosh computer wasn’t a success because Apple failed with the Lisa. It was a success because Steve Jobs saw what was wrong with the overall approach of Xerox PARC in bringing a workstation to market and neatly side-stepped them all.

The cliche is mostly right: Silicon Valley is built on a mountain of failure. But it you can make sure it’s somebody else’s failures that get you there.


2 Comments so far
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Baloney. You’ll learn more from a failure than a success. And a LOT more from your own failure than someone else’s.

I’ve learned a lot by succeeding, collectively more than from failure. But a failure always teaches me more than a single success. Success teaches by rote repetition. Failure teaches you to think; to investigate, analyze, and comprehend.

Xerox PARC made a system that worked great for Xerox PARC. But not for an Apple. The Mac IS a success because Apple learned from the failure of Lisa. They analyzed what went right and what went wrong, and set about correcting the errors.

Comment by imajoebob

Yes, and it’s also important to learn from others’ failures. I think there are things you can only learn from personal experience, and then there are some things that you can quickly develop from the experiences of others.

To quickly go back to your own example, Xerox PARC made a great system for PARC — but it wasn’t just bad for Apple, it was unsuitable to use by most people in the world, both because of its price and its sophisticated use of SmallTalk for regular tasks. Understanding that meant that Apple didn’t just make a direct copy of the Alto.

And Apple did and didn’t learn from the Lisa. After all, the Mac and Lisa were in tandem development the whole time, and Jobs got kicked off the Lisa partway through the development cycle. The Mac was developed as a response to the Lisa’s mistakes, but the individuals involved were mostly different — and Jobs had very little hand in the final product that emerged from the Lisa project. Again, he was learning from mistakes, but not necessarily his own.

None of this is to say that personal failure is to be avoided. It can provide the most valuable lessons possible. But if you start from a keen awareness of others’ failures, you can make sure you’re at least failing at new things, and that’s way more important.

Comment by morepete

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