Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Why the best thing you can do is fail

By Eddie Obeng, Special to CNN
updated 9:31 AM EST, Sun December 30, 2012
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proportion of their time (over three months every year) carefully preparing budgets, only to find that they are often out of date and need changing before they can be published?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
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
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.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
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
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
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
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT