One of my favourite all-time Onion stories – “Nation Begs Its Smart People to Fix Everything Now” – seems to be a bit of life imitating the comic arts this week as the USA elected a couple of the smartest politicians the country has ever seen – Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren.

Such comedy genius just does not pop out of The Onion’s Holly Jolly butt. Leadership authority Bob Sutton examined the painstaking process of churning through failure after failure in his post ‘Generating 600 Ideas to Get 18: Failing Forward at The Onion’

  • “One of the hallmarks of creative people, teams, and organizations is that they accept failure and view it as an essential part of their life.  That is why, as Diego Rodriguez and I like to say, failure sucks but instructs. There is growing evidence that people learn more from failure than from success — although an important caveat is that people seem to learn the most when they review both successes and failures that occurred during an experience.  Regardless, whether it is venture capitalists, pharmaceutical researchers, or product designers that you are talking about, there is always a high failure rate in creative work. I used the example of toy design at IDEO in Weird Ideas That Work…Brendan Boyle is founder and head of Skyline, a group of toy designers at IDEO in Palo Alto, California Boyle provides compelling evidence that innovative companies need a wide range of ideas and that success requires a high failure rate.  Boyle and his fellow designers keep careful track of the ideas they generate in brainstorming sessions and informal conversations, and that just pop into their heads…Boyle showed me a spreadsheet indicating that, in 1998, Skyline (which had fewer than 10 employees) generated about 4000 ideas for new toys.  Of these 4,000 ideas, 230 were thought to be promising enough to develop into a nice drawing or working prototype.  Of these 230, 12 were ultimately sold.  This “yield” rate is only about 1/3 of 1% of total ideas and 5% of ideas that were thought to have potential…As Boyle says, ‘You can’t get any good new ideas without having a lot of dumb, lousy, and crazy ones.  Nobody in my business is very good at guessing which are a waste of time and which will be the next Furby.’…I just accidentally ran into another example on the radio show, "This American Life," in an episode called "Tough Room," which aired in February.  Check out this podcast, notably "Act One: Make ’em Laff," which is about the creative process at The Onion, the famous fake news organization. It describes and has audio of the sessions where the writers pitch headlines for Onion stories to their fellow writers.  As host Ira Glass says, this is a tough room where most ideas being shot down immediately and, even those that strike people as funny at first usually don’t make it into print.  According to the story, to get the 18 headlines they need for each week’s edition, the writers usually propose about 600.  This is actually a higher success rate than IDEO’s toy group (about 3% survive), but printing a bad story is a lot cheaper than launching a bad product.  I found the other nuances to be fascinating too — especially the constructive conflict and criticism in the group and the tensions between veterans and newcomers.”

As it happens, I presented to a group of UK CTO’s hosted by HP today on the topic of ‘Customer Insight’ and as you might imagine the theme of embracing failure wove itself into the material.  One issue that always comes up in considering such an approach in the workplace is how to draw the line between ‘enough’ and ‘too much’ failure.  First of all, I have written about the qualitative notion of a ‘taxonomy’ to failure, ie.  not all failures were created equal.  Some types of failures (eg.  anticipated) in some types of contexts (eg.  experimentation rather than execution) are more desirable than others.  But Sutton’s piece focuses on the quantitative dimension.  Here too the the desired level can vary.  Like the toys cited here, the Museum of Failed Products estimate of product failures at ‘90%’.  In my very first piece, I noted that “When Bill [Gates] set up Microsoft Research at Cambridge University he told Computer Science legend and its first director that he wanted at least 50% of the projects in the facility to fail because otherwise he would feel that they we not pushing the leading edge hard enough.”  I think that this numerical perspective is a useful one to help both contain, but also to unleash the ability to fail.  Today I proposed that organisations establish ‘Failure Budgets’ for their undertakings.  It sets the threshold for if there is too much failure for the group to afford.  But more importantly, it releases people to be freer in their attack of innovation and creativity.  Sort of like a getting a £100 of ‘fun money’ to spend on holiday obsess over every penny.

Finally, I guess failure is an essential ingredient to ‘fun’…being so central to the creation process at both a world leading toy company and world leading comedy site.


Onion brainstorming wall