Thomas J. Watson snr. known as “The World’s Greatest Salesman” was also one of the richest men in the United States at the time. Having built the enormously successful IBM, he was asked for advice on how to succeed. This was his reply:
“Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure. You are thinking of failure as the enemy of success. But it isn’t at all. You can be discouraged by failure – or you can learn from it. So go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because, remember, that’s where you will find success.”
This is sometimes misquoted in the abbreviated form I used for the headline of this posting. The sentiment and the implications, remain the same.
One cannot innovate without trying what has not been done before. That means you are bound to make mistakes. The point Watson made, speaking in fact about sales, holds well for accumulating learning on the path of innovation, or any exploration of new things.
Lots of pop psychobabble has been published about the notion that the only failure is to give up, that one should not expect to get through life without getting knocked down but should rather make sure one keeps getting up, and so forth. I thought I’d take the practical route show you two examples of failures which went on to be great successes.
The molecule on the right was put together as a treatment for angina, a very painful condition which is sometimes mistaken for a heart attack and can sometimes be a precourser to one.
The users of these drugs are older and generally have circulatory problems.
In the testing phase for the drug the results showed that it hardly beat a placebo – a sugar pill – in effectiveness. The drug company asked the few thousand trialists who had been provided with the drug to return all the remaining tablets in their possession. That was when the drug company ran into an interesting problem. A very large proportion of the trialists wanted to hang onto the pills and their reaction was rather stronger than anticipated.
Careful exploration revealed that while the drug did not have a viable effect in preventing or treating angina, it did have one very unusual and valuable side effect, which was why so many trialists wanted to hang onto their remaining supply.
Sildenafil Citrate, or Viagra as the world knows it now, was a splendid failure that went on to become a raging success.
PTFE as it is more commonly known was discovered by a researcher named Albert Plunkett of the Kinetic Chemical company who was experimenting with some alternative CFC refrigerants. These are the gases which, when compressed pumped through a refrigerator or air-conditioner, produce the coldness we so value.
In one experiment, perfluorethylene was being tried. However, when Plunkett tried to use gas from the canister of perfluorethylene he found that none came out. Exploring further he found that the perfluorethylene had polymerised through the action of the iron in the cannister acting as a catalyst. It had become a solid described as polytetrafluoroethylene. That’s it above and to the right.
The resulting colourless powder had some very unusual properties and one in particular which impressed him and all of us since. It is almost impossible to make anything stick to it, or vice versa.
Plunkett and Kinetic patented it and resitered a trademark. The Kinetic company was acquired by DuPont and the trademark is still used today. Teflon.
Of course there are have been thousands of failures which have not turned out to be successes in any form and that is all part of the process. However they have probably all served to educate those who worked on them and ultimately led to more successful results.
Keep making mistakes if it means you are trying new things on the path to innovation.