Big Ideas

Embracing Mistakes

Some fields — such as tech startups — have gotten so comfortable sharing their missteps and flops that conferences entirely devoted to them have sprung up. What can organizers of events across all industries learn from what goes wrong?

Is incorporating failure into the meeting program the new formula for success?

Last October, entrepreneur Mike Arsenault got up in front of a ballroom full of people in San Francisco and told them about all the mistakes he had made in launching Spreadable, a word-of-mouth marketing tool for entrepreneurs. At the time, he was working as a new-product manager for the Grasshopper Group, a Boston-based virtual phone-system company. Standing before the assembled audience, Arsenault recounted how Grasshopper invested $550,000 into launching Spreadable and how the product quickly bombed — the company shut it down after only six months. He detailed the mistakes that he and the Spreadable team made along the way. Then he sat down. The crowd applauded appreciatively.

Despite the confessional nature of his presentation, this was no self-help meeting for recovering techies. This was FailCon 2012, an annual one-day conference where technology entrepreneurs, investors, designers, and programmers gather to hear stories of failure. It’s not ironic or tongue-in- cheek. People really want to hear how and why others failed, and they want to use those lessons to increase their own chance of success. Arsenault’s session had a straightforward title: “How NOT to Manage Product.”

Many startups fail. Everyone knows that. Yet most of the how-to events and programming for aspiring entrepreneurs have focused on the path to success, rather than the bumpy road of failure. FailCon represents something different: “Stop being afraid of failure and start embracing it” is the message featured prominently on its website.

FailCon is based on the belief that failure and the lessons learned in the process of failing can be a more effective teaching tool than cheerfully relayed stories of success — and that personal accounts of failure are best shared and lessons are best learned at face-to-face events.

While FailCon is geared toward technology entrepreneurs, meeting professionals from any industry can take the concept of learning from failure and customize it to their own events, said Cassandra Phillipps, FailCon co-founder. Whether an event is dedicated wholly to failure or presents just one case study, incorporating failure into an agenda could be the key to a meeting’s success.

“The startup community is a great place to start this conversation, but it’s not the only place for it,” Phillipps said. “There are a lot of companies and industries where failure is very harshly punished but that only limits people’s potential. By formalizing discussion of failure in settings like this, it shows professional communities that talking about failure is okay, and a person is not a failure just because they experience a failure.”

From Frustrated to Failcon

Phillipps knows of lessons learned. A few years ago, she was just another San Francisco techie hoping her startup concept would be the next big thing. It wasn’t. Eager to turn things around, she attended a number of entrepreneurial events, looking for strategies and tips. “All of these events were very inspirational, but you couldn’t walk away from them and immediately apply it to your business,” she recalled. “It was mostly very successful people talking about what they did well, but what I really needed at that moment was more information on what not to do.”

In 2009, she decided there must be a better way, so she and partner Diane Loviglio launched Failcon. That first event attracted 400 attendees; this year’s drew 550. And it’s not just the Bay Area that’s interested in failure. Licensed variations of FailCon have been held in cities across the globe — in France, Singapore, Berlin, Brazil, and Sydney — each sponsored by a local organization or company. The Greater Baltimore Technology Council hosted its own Bmore Fail for tech entrepreneurs last April.

Phillipps said it’s not surprising that failure-focused events are springing up in the tech world — where failure is often viewed as a career-building step rather than a career-ending catastrophe. “We’ve all failed,” she said, “and it’s a perfectly acceptable story to share because it comes with the territory of trying something new or creating something that’s never been built. Failure is an inevitable part of the process.”

Failure Is Catching On

At the same time, failure is “highly mobile,” according to Phillipps; entrepreneurs are just early adopters of a widely applicable educational format. She recently addressed a group of architects on the value of failure, and there are signs that other industries are embracing the concept of learning from mistakes, too. In 2009, Honda released “Failure: The Secret to Success,” an eight-minute documentary that provided an inside look at the mishaps of Honda racers, designers, and engineers, and how they drew upon failure to motivate them to succeed. The response was so positive that Honda followed up in 2010 by inviting five “thought leaders” from different backgrounds to record short videos talking about their own experiences with failure.

Meanwhile, a session at the 2011 TEDx Toronto conference titled “Doctors make mistakes: Can we talk about that?” has been viewed more than 630,000 times on YouTube. In the session, Toronto emergency-room physician and CBC radio host Brian Goldman, M.D., tells of some of the mistakes he’s made over the course of his career. He discusses how failure presents opportunities for improvement, and he calls on other doctors to start talking about mistakes.

David Ring, M.D., a respected hand and arm surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital, has done just that. Ring chose to open up about a mistake he made — a few years ago, he performed the wrong hand surgery on a patient — and he’s become a popular invited speaker as a result. He and his colleagues from Massachusetts General and Harvard Medical School later detailed the series of missteps that led to the mistake, as well as the safety procedures enacted as a result, in The New England Journal of Medicine. Since that very public admission of error, Ring said he went on what he calls the “Wrong Procedure World Tour,” speaking in front of medical groups and organizations interested in improving their own patientsafety programs. “I wasn’t surprised when people started asking me to come speak,” he said. “I think people are craving these conversations.”

Divine Failure

Health-care providers aren’t the only ones discussing their mistakes on the conference stage. This month in Chicago, pastors from around the Midwest will gather for the fourth Epic Fail Pastors Conference, the brainchild of J.R. Briggs, a blogger and pastor at The Renew Community in Lansdale, Pa. Prior to launching Epic Fail Pastors, Briggs left most conferences feeling dejected rather than inspired. “All these conferences had interesting speakers,” he said, “but I found myself walking away saying either I feel really crappy or this is really irrelevant to my life.”

Fed up, Briggs dashed off a blog post proposing a conference where nobody was allowed to talk about the success they had achieved; instead speakers had to share how they failed in ministry. “The value in that,” he said, “would be helping pastors embrace failure and see failure as an invitation to growth and an opportunity for grace and healing.” Almost immediately, his inbox started filling up. “No blog post I’ve ever written has had more hits,” he said. “It was both exciting and tragic. Exciting because it was clear it was touching a nerve; tragic because it’s so common, yet no one is talking about it.”

In April 2011, the first Epic Fail Pastors Conference was held in a church-turned-bar in Briggs’ town. It drew people from 17 states, plus one attendee who traveled all the way from Australia, according to Briggs. At the one-day event, several pastors talked about their failures and the lessons they learned from them.

While the discussions at Epic Fail Pastors can be highly personal and intensely emotional, Briggs wants it to be more than just confessional. “We have counselors available to help and listen, but we don’t want it to only be a moan-and-groan session. We want people to walk away and say, ‘Now how do we build on this?’” he said. “I’m a big proponent of failure is a terrible thing to waste.”

Goldman, the emergency-room physician, agreed that self-reflection only goes so far when it comes to learning from failure. “When people fail, they tend to view it in a very personal way. But you need to separate the self-deprecation to reach the bigger lessons,” he said in an interview with Convene. “At a certain point, you have to stop the rumination and say, ‘What are the lessons I can carry forward?’ As I reflect on my own career, I learn more from my worst mistakes than I would ever learn from my greatest triumphs.”

The F-word

The crux of any failure discussion should not be the failure itself, but the analysis of the failure, said Edward Burger, a professor of mathematics at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. Burger co-authored the recently published book The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking, which features a chapter on failure. He believes so strongly in the positive lessons of failure that 5 percent of his students’ grade is based on the “quality” of their failure. “Failing is not a point of destination,” he told Convene. “It’s an intermediate step that allows you to get somewhere else.”

That is not a new concept, of course. Failure analysis is an important discipline within the electronics, manufacturing, engineering, and aviation industries. It contributes to the development of new products and to the improved performance and safety of existing products, and has led to essential changes in airline safety. Each year, thousands of material and electrical engineers gather for conferences dedicated to failure, including the International Symposium for Testing and Failure Analysis, where participants share the results of microelectronics failures.

Although such data-driven conferences are highly technical, the basic principles — stress testing something until it fails, determining how to avoid that failure in the future, and then presenting the findings to an audience of peers — can be replicated in any industry and any setting, Burger said. “Failure presents a very concrete opportunity to ask, ‘Why did this not work?’” he said. “The point is not, ‘Hooray! You failed!’ It’s, ‘You failed. Now what are you going to do?’”

Economic Driver

The fact that interest in failure started picking up around the same time the U.S. economy tanked might strike some as more than coincidental. Just as some might wonder if transparency about failure is a passing fad that will disappear from meeting agendas once the economy is firmly back on track.

Doubtful, said every one of the experts interviewed by Convene. “It’s seductive to say there’s trendiness to this,” Goldman said, “but you can go back hundreds of years to find philosophers who talk about the value of failure.”

Jason Zasky, founding editor of Failure Magazine, likes to point out that his online publication, which provides in-depth coverage of current and historical failures, was launched in 2000 at the height of the dot-com boom. Even during those heady times, failure struck a nerve, Zasky said. A few days after Failure went live, high traffic crashed the under-prepared servers.

“I don’t think there is any other subject that is nearly as compelling,” Zasky said, adding that any discussion of failure is likely to fill seats. “Some people are interested because they want to learn from it and avoid the mistakes of others. Others are just curious as to how and why failure is a catalyst for success. Others just enjoy dwelling on the misery of others.”

Arsenault, meanwhile, cited a popular quote from former IBM chief Thomas Watson, in which the business pioneer was asked the formula for success. “It’s quite simple really,” Watson reportedly said. “Double your rate of failure.”

“I think successful people have been doing this for a long time,” Arsenault said. “Maybe the notion that it’s okay to publicly share and celebrate failure is a somewhat new idea; but innovators have been thinking this way for a long time.”

Making Failure Resonate at Meetings

While the value of learning from failure may be clear, how to impart the lesson in a meeting setting may be less so, particularly if it’s the first time. Meeting professionals interested in introducing failure to their events should try to avoid blandly generic lessons in stickto- itiveness and instead be narrow and focused, according to FailCon’s Cassandra Phillipps. And most important, keep the content honest. “Really push your speakers and be willing to take risks with them,” Phillipps said. “I get presentations weeks in advance and send notes back saying, ‘Get more real, it’s too aspirational.’ Speakers often take the easy way out, but you’ll get a higherquality event if you’re willing to work with your speakers and really push them.”

FailCon speaker Mike Arsenault said: “I try to start with a bang: ‘We worked on this product and we spent all this money and it didn’t work out.’ That gets people’s attention.”

And surgeon David Ring, M.D., who has shared his surgery mistake with numerous groups, said that there’s “something about storytelling that really engages people and draws them in more than just numbers and concepts. The first time I was invited to speak about my error, I thought maybe I’d show some slides. Then I thought, that’s not what people want and that’s not what changes culture. People want to hear the mistakes and my story.”

Molly Brennan

Convene Contributing Editor Molly Brennan is a freelance writer and editor based in Highland Park, Illinois.