When did failure become such a bad word?

One of life’s most rudimentary lessons, ingrained in us from birth, is that we learn from our mistakes.  Why then as adults in the business world are we conditioned to look at even the smallest failure as grounds for rebuke?

Professor James Patell at Stanford Graduate School of Business has dedicated himself to challenging this mindset through a groundbreaking graduate course called Design for Extreme Affordability.  The course challenges the students to design low-cost products that can solve tough problems in the developing world. Forty students from across Stanford’s schools – engineering, medical, business and others – pair up with global partners who have concrete projects to tackle. The goal is to deliver nuts and bolts solutions, a way to implement them, and the means to sustain them over the long haul.  Over the last 10 years his students have been wildly successful at innovating some life changing products, and the key to success – encouraging failure!

Patell teaches his students the art of rapid prototyping, where the idea is to develp often and fail often thus allowing them to learn from all of the the large and small errors that occur at each stage to produce an end product that not only works but has been tested throughout its development.  Patell believes that many failures are a means to a great solution.  And the evidence suggests he is correct.  Some of the most notable innovations to come out of his students work include low cost d.light solar lanterns for villages without electricity, a childhood pneumonia treatment device (AdaptAir) that provides a custom fit for babies of all sizes to receive oxygen and the widely publicized Embrace blanket for premature infants.

So the “Kingbridge Insight” for today is a recommendation for a shift in mindset among business leaders.   Rather than measuring success as an absence of failure perhaps resilience and the ability to recognize failure as an opportunity to improve should be the true measure of business excellence.