Epic Fail: The Science of Failure;What it Means for Success

April 9, 2012

As it turns out, scientists fail. A lot. Kevin Dunbar, a researcher, began studying labs in the early 1990\'s and walked away the the surprising statistic that, about 50% of the time ,scientists were coming up with data that was completely unexpected and matched none of their careful guesses and calculations.

"But experiments rarely tell us what we think they’re going to tell us," Dunbar reveals. "That’s the dirty secret of science."

More like the dirty secret of life. Failure is inevitable. In business, as in science, we will create expectations (The projected revenue should look like ___ in May or the experiment will yield 1 mole of Co2) and every now and then reality will rock these predictions. Dunbar found that our first inclination is to think, "Oh, I\'ve done something wrong and I won\'t do that again," and then try something else. Throw away the unexpected data/result and move on with life.

The amount of unexpected results that are tossed at us every day make it impossible to analyze each one, but Dunbar argues that throwing them all away is a mistake. What was really going on was that "[t]he scientists had discovered a new fact, but they called it a failure."

Dumbar also found that teams of scientists that were more diverse, or communicated more with non-experts in the field were better able to view these failures with a critical eye and create efficient, effective solutions.

"This is why other people are so helpful: They shock us out of our cognitive box. "I saw this happen all the time,\' Dunbar says. \'A scientist would be trying to describe their approach, and they’d be getting a little defensive, and then they’d get this quizzical look on their face. It was like they’d finally understood what was important.\'

If you want to increase your success, take a look at your failure and discuss it with like-minded folks, people who have no idea what you\'re talking about AND a diverse team.

A screenshot from the article "Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up"


1. Check Your Assumptions: Another cold call failed? What assumption of yours does this contradict? That the potential customer was in the market? Maybe you are cold-calling the wrong people. Perhaps you think that your telephone skills are up to par. Are they really?

2. Seek out the Ignorant: Bounce your failure off of a family member who isn\'t involved in business. "How would you have felt if you got this call and I said this to you?" They might have a valuable outsiders opinion.

3. Encourage Diversity: Seek out experts in other areas to discuss this with. Maybe that one guy in the IT department has something to say about this. During the next meeting, don\'t hesitate to bring up your problem and let a couple colleagues take a shot at it.

4. Beware of Failure Blindness: Simply be mindful of the fact that we are apt to sweep little failures under the rug, or attribute them to this or that. But those who are truly striving for excellence will take a little time to analyze their mistakes with a critical, diverse eye.

(Disclaimer: This does not mean stressing about them and attacking other people around you by constantly mentioning them. We would all appreciate it if you did NOT do that. Please and thank you.)

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