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proportion of their time (over three months every year) carefully preparing budgets, only to find that they are often out of date and need changing before they can be published?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 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT