IdeaFestival: Fail Early, Fail Often

Dr. John Barker is a former member of the University of Louisville plastic surgery department and current professor of experimental trauma and orthopedic surgery at the Johann-Wolfgang-Goethe-Universität in Frankfort. He is also the head of a new regenerative medicine institute.

In his IdeaFestival speech Saturday about the potential for medicine to develop a way for humans to regenerate and restore hand and facial tissue, he presented one of the most memorable facts of the entire festival. He said that the planarian flat worm can be divided into 179 pieces, and each of those pieces will eventually regenerate into its own separate flat worm.

But if you divide a planarian flat room into 180 pieces? The worm is dead.

How long did it take scientists to come to this revelation? To the magic number that creates a community of flat worms, and the horrible number that turns a flat worm into 180 lifeless chunks?

Trial and error. Failure. Experimentation.

Peter Sims opened the first session of IdeaFestival 2012 on Thursday morning with a presentation about his book “Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries.” He was either selected to go first to set in place a theme for the event, or a theme emerged from his presentation by virtue of it being the first.

Affordable losses. Experimental innovation. Failure. Imperfection.

Americans have been acculturated to distrust, fear and even be embarrassed by failure and trial. But these things lead to great leaps in discovery when it comes to science, art and entrepreneurship and business.

Sims encouraged making “little bets,” ones you can afford to lose, as part of the development process of any new venture. One of those little bets should be sharing the creative process with your clients or audience, he said. Tell your team and tell your clients that you’re coming to them with an imperfect first draft. Don’t be afraid of showing people imperfection.

Richard DeMillo is the former chief technology officer at HP and is now head of The Center for 21st Century Universities. He shared the stage Thursday with IdeaFestival founder Kris Kimmel to discuss the state of higher education in America.

DeMillo said that two-thirds of all American college students earn As and Bs.

“We’re all living in Lake Woebegone,” he said.

Grade inflation has reached epic proportions because we’re afraid of bruising the egos of college students. It may seem like a victimless exaggeration, but it’s making hiring decisions harder and harder as transcripts become less meaningful.

Our gussied-up college transcripts were just one example given by an IdeaFestival presenter about how we’re so afraid of failure and imperfection that we often bury it under beautiful facades.

Former U.S. Foreign Services officer Peter Van Buren spoke on Friday about his role leading a State Department provincial reconstruction team on a mission to “win the hearts and minds” of the Iraqi people. The title of his book is “We Meant Well,” and that’s a solid indication of how successful he felt that his team was. He was leading a reconstruction team, but he said, “my experience with rebuilding was with reading the pamphlets at Home Depot.”

The most stunning example that Van Buren gave of American efforts to cultivate an image of prosperity and hope, while ignoring critical issues, involved the U.S. embassy in Iraq, the largest U.S. embassy in the world. Embassy administration decided that the desert embassy’s grounds ought to be blanketed with lush grass to represent the vitality of U.S. culture. The officials flew in massive amounts of seeds and planted them. Almost immediately, “every bird in the country” says Van Buren, descended upon the grounds and ate every last seed. To thwart the birds, the embassy had sod shipped in; workers laid it and cared for it with billions of gallons of water.

Soon the lawn was so green and in such contrast to the surrounding desert that, Van Buren said, “you wouldn’t be surprised to see a ‘Bed Bath and Body Works’ next door on the block.”

As embassy officials played weekly lacrosse games on the lush green fields, just blocks away  other folks scrounged out a way to live. While soldiers lived in rough conditions, at the embassy it was one glossed-over misstep after another. Van Buren said, “At best we were goofy idiots. At worst we we empowering all the wrong people and disrupting existing systems.”

We create lovely veneers to hide problems. But as Tony Wagner said in his presentation Friday on the Finland Phenomenon, the world of innovation and creativity is a world of risk. In the Q&A session for this presentation, Kimmel repeated the oft-mentioned advice, “it’s better to ask forgiveness than to seek permission.”

The Shakespeare Behind Bars program proved a palpable point that we are capable of surmounting failures of the worst kind. Even after former inmate Larry Lucas decided to work toward rehabilitation, he got in trouble once again in prison. He was forced to give up the Shakespeare Behind Bars program until he had completed the punishment for his infraction.

When Lucas tried to rejoin the program, he learned a lesson in forgiveness. 

“The program let me back in without much question or hassle,” said Lucas.

But during this challenging time, Lucas said he learned the most important lesson from Larry Chandler, chair of the parole board, who asked him, “what are you doing to take advantage of the positive aspects of your incarceration?” 

In other words, how was he making the most of his failure?

At least twice during the event, we were told that a secret to success was to “fail early and to fail often,” but the inmate-alumni reassured us that all kinds of failures are surmountable, and that most kinds of failures can lead to discoveries and change and innovation.

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