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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.

  1. You use several real-life examples from MIT Sloan alumni in the book to illustrate the benefits of planning for failure. Can you speak briefly about why it was important for you to include MIT-linked stories?
  2. Kara & Anjali:MIT attracts people who are willing to push beyond what’s been tried previously, individuals who are willing to experiment and risk failure to pursue what is possible. There was no shortage of MIT alumni who could have been featured in our book, but we ended up being able to feature only a few. We selected inspiring examples of people at different career stages in different industries who exemplify disciplined thinking and smart experimentation. For example, Anjali sought out MIT alumni who had succeeded in industries where projects often fail, inviting them to class to share with her students how they handled the challenges. Her conversations with venture capital (VC) investor Eric Hjerpe, SM ’93, led to the story we tell in the book about his personal reflection practices. Eric credits some of his success in the VC world to his own disciplined review process, a habit that he cultivated over the years, which in turn helped him to make more thoughtful investment decisions.

    Elizabeth Yin, MBA ’07, was one of Kara’s classmates, a fellow 2007 graduate who pursued several entrepreneurial efforts after a stint at Google. Elizabeth generously shares the stories of her successes and failures, and how she’s learned from them to successfully grow LaunchBit. Her scrappy startup mentality, accessibility, and “fail fast and lean” approach, coupled with her desire to learn and to help others learn from her experiences, gave us an inspiring example to highlight in the book.

    Ryan Tseng, MBA ’09, is another relatively recent MIT Sloan grad who shared his startup experiences, this time with a hardware invention that he and his team worked long and hard to bring to fruition. As you’ll see in the book, his conversations with Anjali—which took place over the months that he was a student in her class—helped to drive home the value of the method we present.

  3. You are both alumnae of MIT Sloan. Kara, how did your experience as a student of Anjali’s lead to working on this book together? Anjali, you talk of your time with John Sterman as your PhD advisor—how did he influence your work? How do you approach teaching at MIT Sloan?
  4. Kara: Interestingly, I met Anjali through John Sterman. When I began the MBA program at MIT Sloan in 2005, I immediately began searching for ways to widen opportunities for MBAs with social impact interests. I reached out to John and he immediately connected me to Anjali. He knew a good fit when he saw one! Anjali and I had many conversations around increasing the role of sustainability at MIT Sloan and MIT at large. She served as the faculty advisor for a special independent study course that a group of other Sloan MBA and PhD students and I put together to further our vision and work around sustainability at MIT. Anjali held us to a rigorous standard. She and I also put together other student offerings, including a Sloan Innovation Period (SIP) class on fair trade and another on socially responsible investing. She was always a willing sponsor, partner, and thought leader. I could always count on Anjali to come through—from the big ideas to the tiniest details. As the teaching assistant for her Practicing Management course, I was thrilled to have an opportunity to continue to work with Anjali on the ideas that formed the foundation of this book. Once I graduated in 2007, she and I continued to work together—developing a workbook and tools to support student projects in the field and beyond—bringing ideas into my consulting practice at Mission Spark, and through the growth and impact of the development of her GlobalHealth Lab. I think when two people truly partner on co-authoring a book  (especially when not co-located), it is extremely important to trust each other—on communication, quality, ideas, and deadlines. It was no easy task, but we knew that we were up for it based on our past personal and work experiences and our shared passion for the topic and content of the book.

    Anjali:  I first arrived at MIT decades ago, and every time I left I’ve been drawn back! Although I was an undergraduate physics major, I took all the system dynamics classes on offer, and benefited greatly from John Sterman’s teaching and research advice. Starting as a freshman, I conducted an extensive Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) study that led me to discover system dynamics. John helped me learn how to map and model complex systems, and his worldview has definitely inspired mine—looking at some of the biggest challenges facing us today, aiming to uncover linkages between cause and effect, and taking a systems view. Drawn by the feedback-based approach that system dynamics encompasses, I came back to do my PhD with John, eventually working with Deborah Ancona and John Carroll to develop my dissertation research on applying system dynamics to theories of organizational change. And I have the System Dynamics Group to thank for bringing me back to campus when I joined the faculty in 2001.

    No question about it, one of the best things about working at MIT is the amazing gift I get every year: the chance to meet students and develop working collaborations with them. I use all my teaching experiences as collaboratively as I can, which over the years has led to all kinds of experiments! I’ve co-designed classes with students, advised them as entrepreneurs, and worked shoulder-to-shoulder with them in practical field projects that form the focus of the GlobalHealth Lab, which I founded in 2008. Via the class, we’ve now conducted 70 improvement and innovation projects in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, each of which puts a student team to work in partnership with the enterprise to help deliver better health care to those who most need it. (See groundwork.mit.edu for more information.)

    In my teaching, I’m inspired by action learning. I’ve been lucky to learn from colleagues across MIT Sloan and MIT, and to have the freedom to try new things. The GlobalHealth Lab was a bold innovation that the Dean’s Office and Rick Locke, Simon Johnson, and MIT Sloan alum Jeff Shames, SM ‘83 supported. Yasheng Huang and I are now writing about action learning together, and it’s been great to be able to not only innovate in teaching, but also collaborate with faculty colleagues in understanding what makes action learning work.

    Probably because I try out new things in my teaching all the time, I have a special relationship with the teaching assistants I’ve worked with over the years—we end up working together so closely that we know each other incredibly well by the end of it all. I stay in touch with them. In Kara’s case, we kept finding ways to work together. I am so glad that we took our ideas all the way to this book.