Former DARPA Director On Why Failing is the Only Way to Learn

An insanely inspiring TED Talk about how DARPA learns through trial and error. She shares many examples of DARPA projects including hypersonic gliders and hummingbird drones, which are not only fascinating in their own right, but also provides an interesting insight to the kind of cutting-edge work that DARPA is working on. In all of these examples, the secret to success was not getting it right the first time, but learning through failing spectacularly, and working in an environment where failure is not only okay, its encouraged. If I were to speak for Ms. Dugan, I’d say that her perspective would be that, if you do not fail the first time, you aren’t reaching far enough or high enough.

Ms. Dugan’s message comes back to something we have all heard before, “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” And, the slight twist I hear in her message as it applies to companies today is, “What would you attempt to do if you believed that failure was not a fireable offense?” The zero margin for error that most companies allow their people today leads to incremental thinking and the lack of big risks. And, as we all know, big risks are what carries big rewards. Small risks lead to small rewards. Therefore, is there any surprise that innovation is driven by entrepreneurs today much more than by big, established, public companies?

While recent advice for CEOs and managers has been to accept and celebrate failure, perhaps the message should really be to encourage failure. At the end of the day, failing shows that at least someone who does not accept the status quo and wants to impact their corner of the world, and for leaders who want to create growth that is a critically important behavior to encourage.

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