Dealing with failure successfully

failure by jurvetson

What Google Could Learn From Pixar
[Via Daring Fireball]

Peter Sims:

Despite an unbroken string of 11 blockbuster films, Catmull regularly says, “Success hides problems.” It’s an insight Google should acknowledge and act on.


One thing the article mentions is that Pixar is always working to find solutions to problems. I wrote about this before, where I sketched out some of the technical problems each Pixar movie was designed to solve.

As Pixar says, “Success hides problems.” The complementary idea, that “Failure reveals problems”, is one very few organizations want to examine. At many companies, failure leads to loss of employment. The organizations seem to believe that as long as someone never fails, then they must be better than others. Fear of failure prevents innovation. This leads to a maladaptive company, one that is not resilient enough to deal with failure when it inevitably happens, because the hidden problems do eventually pierce the bubble of complacency.

In a complex world, failure often tell you more than success. I use the game I learned in Junior High School called Bulls and Creots as an example. Here, outright failure to get anything right actually gives you more knowledge than any other single guess.

Similarly, with some very complex systems, the only way to get to clarity is to make something fail, to make it work wrong. In biological systems, some of the most insightful work has come from disabling a part of the system and seeing what happens. So, for example, in a metabolic pathway with a large number of enzymes, looking at a single enzyme tells us little about the process, since in many cases we do not know what the enzyme really does.

But disable the enzyme and what will happen? If it is a critical part of the pathway, then none of the final product will be produced. Instead, a large amount of an intermediary product will build up – the intermediary product that the disabled enzyme was supposed to work with but can’t. So, like throwing a wrench in an assembly line backs up everything behind the wrench, a disabled enzyme results in a backup of intermediary product. Study that product and you will know what the enzyme does. Do this for each enzyme in the pathway and you can then delineated what happens at each step as you add material at the beginning of the pathway.

This and other approaches yielded understanding like this, which shows the complex intermediary metabolic pathways in cells. Pretty complicated but it was only revealed through things like designed failure.

intermediary metabolism

Failure and the continuing drive to solve problems is how you keep innovation fresh and creative. Pixar gets that. Companies that do not will discover that Failure does eventually reveal problems in even successful companies and if they do not deal with that failure in a productive way, the organization could go down in flames.

And this is quite likely simply because the company has no experience with failure and will lack the resilience to deal with that Failure in a successful fashion.

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