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Fail Better

Q & A With Anjali Sastry, SB ’86, PhD ’95, and Kara Penn, MBA ’07, Authors of Fail Better: Design Smart Mistakes and Succeed Sooner

Learning why and how to embrace failure is an essential skill in business and innovation. But can you fail better? In their new book Senior Lecturer Anjali Sastry and alumna Kara Penn provide a framework based on their research and practical experience to maximize the lessons learned from failure.

The following is an expanded version of the Q&A that was published in the print version of the magazine.

Kara Penn, MBA ’07Kara Penn, MBA ’07

  1. There has been a lot of buzz around the idea that it is okay to fail—but not a lot of guidance on how to learn from these mistakes. Why was it important for you to write a book that helps people design and plan for productive failure?
  2. Kara & Anjali:Failing has acquired quite an allure. There seems to be an explosion of articles and blog posts exhorting people to fail fast, fail forward, or fail early and often. Somehow, failure has become sexy. Learning, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to get its due in the popular management press.

    And yet, surely the only value of failure lies in the learning you can extract from it.

    Our starting point in investigating how failure is used was the premise that the ability to learn through experience accounts for the difference between failures that are just plain dumb and those that lead to breakthrough ideas and innovations.

    In looking at the topic in popular articles and books, and in listening to interviews and graduation speeches, we encountered story after story about how successful innovators, athletes, entrepreneurs, and leaders succeeded because of all their failures. Yet we were skeptical, thinking that plenty of other folks who tried just as hard—and failed just as much—did not reach eventual success. Failure by itself is not the goal. Harnessing it effectively is. We found a real gap on the management bookshelf: There were no guides aimed at helping all kinds of managers and leaders design their projects so as to minimize wasteful failures and maximize the value of the failures they could not avoid.

    Anjali’s training in system dynamics helped to frame the challenge. We live in a complex world. System complexity guarantees that if you’re trying to innovate or change something in the real world, you cannot arrive at a perfect solution in a single-shot effort—some failure along the way is a given.

    As part of the process, we examined individuals, teams, and organizations that we discovered use failure as a tool for getting better, and then used our own work to hone our ideas about how to learn from experience—and make it all practical.

    This is where Anjali’s teaching experience and Kara’s consulting experience came in to play. To develop our ideas for failing better, we tried them out in real projects. We also reviewed research from disciplines as varied as project management to positive psychology. Our goal was to develop a replicable, practical, and implementable method for creating and learning from failure in the context of everyday work projects. And we wanted to ground our ideas in evidence, both from the literature and from our own lives.

    To get there, we definitely drew on all of our own experience—in teaching, fieldwork, research, and consulting—to develop our methods. And, of course, we found motivation for the work in our own experience: Each of us has failed in personal or professional endeavors, and has wondered in the moment how success could possibly ensue!

    The method presented in the book integrates our own techniques with approaches borrowed from the scientific method, project management, systems thinking, and process improvement, along with great examples that we’ve gleaned from professional practice to guide disciplined data collection, refinement of personal and team habits, and collective learning.

    If we can help readers to achieve smart failures—or better yet, full-on successes—and learn more while doing so, we will have reached our goals for the book.

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