No one likes to make mistakes. In insurance technology, mistakes cost money; mistakes set you back; mistakes cost people jobs.
Yet, mistakes sometimes lead to greater success in the future if people avoid the urge to panic and are willing to learn from their failures. Mistakes can be teaching moments that
otherwise might never be learned.
I’m not advocating mistakes as a development tool, particularly with multi-million dollar projects on the line. I am advocating a willingness to formulate projects that may or may not prove to be successful, but can advance critical thinking that can make for better managers and better employees.
I recently read two articles that focus on achieving success and the lessons from these stories is that mistakes don’t always equate to failure, no matter what your parents or teachers might tell you.
The first article was written by Malcolm Gladwell for The New Yorker and recalls the research done by Xerox at its Palo Alto, Calif., research center in the late 1970s and early 1980s as the company developed, among other things, the laser printer.
Gladwell also explains how Apple and Steve Jobs took one of Xerox’s crude tools and turned it into the mouse.
It was certainly a different era as companies were willing to invest in research projects, knowing many of them likely would turn out to be useless. But when they came up with a winner, well, history was made.
A gentleman named Gary Starkweather was the genius behind the laser printer and despite his success he often felt frustrated that the Xerox corporate leaders rejected his many ideas and, in the case of the laser printer, actually ordered him to stop work on it.
Gladwell points out, though, that sometimes a responsible party has to “shut off the tap” of ideas, meaning people can continue bouncing ideas off the wall, but nothing will ever come of them if the ideas are allowed to flow without ever being developed into working products.
Gladwell writes: “The more Starkweather talked, the more apparent it became that his entire career had been a version of this problem. Someone was always trying to turn his tap off. But someone had to turn his tap off: the interests of the innovator aren’t perfectly aligned with the interests of the corporation. Starkweather saw ideas on their own merits. Xerox was a multinational corporation, with shareholders, a huge sales force, and a vast corporate customer base, and it needed to consider every new idea within the context of what it already had.”
The second article was written by Paul Tough for The New York Times Sunday Magazine. This article looks at education through the eyes of a New York City headmaster, Dominic Randolph, and how IQ tests don’t always predict success or failure. The article also considers character as a way of predicting a student’s future success.
One line, though, perfectly summarizes the critical thinking skills that young people need to be taught at a time when many schools would rather focus on helping students pass standardized tests: “Randolph wants his students to succeed, of course—it’s just that he believes that in order to do so, they first need to learn how to fail.”
Innovation in any industry needs to be a never-ending investment, even in difficult times. Finding employees with the imagination and talent to develop new tools—and fostering an environment where such imagination is admired rather than ridiculed—should be an important part of every IT department.
We aren’t foolish enough to believe that it is, though. Such actions take courage—both at the development level and at the corporate level—a character trait we all need to develop.