To Achieve Great Success, Try Promoting Small Failures
A while back, we saw a TED talk by designer Tom Wujek about something called The Marshmallow Challenge, in which teams of four are given 18 minutes to build the tallest possible structure from 20 strands of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow, which must sit atop the structure.
It’s a great talk and well worth seven minutes to watch. But as we watched it, we were reminded again of the power of failure in the pursuit of success. Fascinatingly—and maybe not so surprisingly—the teams that did best in the Marshmallow Challenge were teams of kindergarteners. And the teams that did worst? Recent business school graduates.
One of the biggest differences in how they went about the challenge (aside from the B school grads’ relentless jockeying for power) was in their process. The B school grads planned the “perfect” structure and built it with just enough time to spare to plop the marshmallow on top, at which point the structure generally toppled. The kindergarteners played around with the materials, building simple little structures quickly, then taller ones that toppled, then fixed them up to be sturdier. They weren’t seeking perfection and they weren’t afraid to build a failure. That enabled them to learn how to build a taller structure.
Sound familiar? Too often we as managers demand perfection, when people learn largely from the lessons of failure. We’re not advocating the pursuit of grand failures, of course. Quite the contrary: our point is that we need to distinguish between small failures in pursuit of innovation (to be encouraged) and great failures as a result of poor execution, which is an outcome small failures can help cure. Think of it as “prototyping.” When workers have the freedom to fail, they gain the freedom to innovate. Imperfect prototypes lead to better prototypes lead to, well, the sky’s the limit.