Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Why the best thing you can do is fail

By Eddie Obeng, Special to CNN
December 30, 2012 -- Updated 1431 GMT (2231 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Queen Elizabeth asked why people failed to anticipate 2008 financial crisis
  • Eddie Obeng: Business leaders routinely fail despite enormous amount of professional advice
  • He says organizations once succeeded by doing more of the same, but now need innovation
  • Obeng: Creative experimentation is needed, and even failure can be productive

Editor's note: Eddie Obeng is an author and founder of Pentacle, a virtual business school. He spoke at the TED Global conference in Edinburgh in June. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "ideas worth spreading", which it makes available through talks posted on its website.

(CNN) -- After the 2008 financial crisis had taken hold, the Queen of England asked, in essence: Why did no one tell us that the disaster was coming?

The answer from a group of eminent economists, some of the smartest people on the planet, was to blame it on "the failure of the collective imagination of a number of bright minds."

Do you wonder why a search on Amazon for the word "creativity" returns a list of about 90,000 books? Why a search on Google for "innovation + creativity" delivers 45 million results, and adding the word "consultants" boosts the number to 60 million? And yet, in spite of all that professional advice, it's the rare idea that is making money or delivering benefits two years after its implementation.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Wonder why businesses insist that their expensive executives spend a significant proportion of their time (over three months every year) carefully preparing budgets, only to find that they are often out of date and need changing before they can be published?

Have you been troubled by so much energy dedicated to summits and visions on how we intend to rebalance the environment or on how we intend to grow wealth for all, and yet with little in the way of accomplishments?

Isn't it clear that the key is not the vision but the implementation?

TED.com: Why you will fail to have a great career

Despite businesses spending decades professionalizing implementation in project management and change management, the results are underwhelming.

2012's business hall of shame
Facing economic challenges head on
Singapore's labor pains
Drug giant embraces innovation

To use an analogy to illustrate how woeful the results are, imagine a family of five planning to go on holiday from London to Hong Kong, with a budget of £3,000. If the vacation turned out like the typical result of a business plan, the family would end up in Makassar, Indonesia, at a cost of £4,000, while leaving two of the children behind.

What's happened in business is that the rules of the real 21st century aren't clear to us, so instead we spend our time responding rationally to a world which we understand and recognize, but which no longer exists.

In the past, the world in which we created our institutions, enterprises and organizations was built on a number of truths. In that world, the immediate past and near future were usually similar enough to allow us to predict the future with some confidence.

TED.com: Keep your goals to yourself

As individuals or organizations, our experiences were mostly influenced by local events, and so by understanding our local business or national environment we could learn about the world around us much faster than it was changing.

This meant that our knowledge and experience had a long "sell by" date. To be successful, we would ensure that the person who knew best had the power to decide and lead effectively from the top. Enterprises sought growth often by choosing to do "more of the same" of what had produced their success.

But over the past few decades we have moved our world to a point where institutions, enterprises, organizations and individuals most often need to seek change. At the same time we have connected the world through cyberspace, allowing distant events, ideas and social phenomena to influence us instantly. And we've enabled people to connect to each other, fueling the density of human interaction.

TED.com: What we learned from teetering on the fiscal cliff

The only things holding us back are the ever weakening inertia of habit, and tradition. And it is this shift in balance which has resulted in a silent transition, flipping from an environment which was far more predictable, Newtonian and laminar, to a turbulent and more complex new world.

I call the transition point "Midnight" (the punch line of a weak joke about the fact no one noticed the flip because it happened at night while they were asleep) and I have been exploring how to think and what to do in this World After Midnight.

I proposed an experiment to many clients: "Keep a diary on a spreadsheet, for a week. Wait for four months and then score the time spent which either improved the bottom line or made your life better." A typical result is about 15%. But these are not idle people. They are smart, well-meaning people, in top, well-resourced enterprises, who are working full weeks, often from dawn to beyond dusk. The result horrified me -- almost all of the time spent acting rationally in response to a world which doesn't exist turned out to be wasted.

All the CEOs around me, my clients, want innovation, so they seek innovation. They say to people, "Take risks and be creative!" But unfortunately the words get transformed as they travel through the air. By the time the words enter their ears, what people hear is, "Do crazy things and then I'll fire you." Why?

Because in the old world, getting stuff wrong was unacceptable. If you got something wrong, you'd failed. How should you be treated? Well, harshly, because you could have asked somebody who had experience. The answer is, don't do things which are different. And then suddenly we tell people to do things differently, and it doesn't work.

TED.com: How ideas trump crises

In reality, there are two ways you can fail in our new world. One, you're doing something for which you should follow a set procedure, and it's a very difficult thing, you're sloppy, and you get it wrong. How should you be treated? You should probably be fired.

On the other hand, you're doing something new, no one's ever done it before, and you get it completely wrong. How should you be treated? Well, free pizzas! You should be treated better than the people who succeed. It's called smart failure.

My goal is to get executives around the world to realize that we're in a new world and that they have to rethink everything they do as a result.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Eddie Obeng.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 19, 2014 -- Updated 1710 GMT (0110 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 2323 GMT (0723 HKT)
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT