Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Why the best thing you can do is fail

By Eddie Obeng, Special to CNN
December 30, 2012 -- Updated 1431 GMT (2231 HKT)
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proportion of their time (over three months every year) carefully preparing budgets, only to find that they are often out of date and need changing before they can be published?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
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2153 GMT (0553 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Newt Gingrich warns that President Obama's border plan spends too much and doesn't do what is needed
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Errol Lewis says if it really wants to woo black voters away from the Democrats, the GOP better get behind its black candidates
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2241 GMT (0641 HKT)
Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died so blacks would no longer be viewed as inferior but rather enjoy the same inherent rights given to whites in America.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
Alex Castellanos says recent low approval ratings spell further trouble for the President
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0349 GMT (1149 HKT)
Paul Begala says Boehner's plan to sue Obama may be a stunt for the tea party, or he may be hoping the Supreme Court's right wing will advance the GOP agenda that he could not
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1659 GMT (0059 HKT)
The rapture is a bizarre teaching in fundamentalist circles, made up by a 19th-century theologian, says Jay Parini. It may have no biblical validity, but is a really entertaining plot device in new HBO series
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1749 GMT (0149 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette: President Obama needs to send U.S. marshals to protect relocating immigrant kids.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says charging the dad in the hot car death case with felony murder, predicated on child neglect, was a smart strategic move.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
Van Jones says our nation is sitting on a goldmine of untapped talent. The tech companies need jobs, young Latinos and blacks need jobs -- so how about a training pipeline?
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
A drug that holds hope in the battle against hepatitis C costs $1,000 per pill. We can't solve a public health crisis when drug makers charge such exorbitant prices, Karen Ignagni says.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1133 GMT (1933 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says our political environment is filled with investigations or accusations of another scandal; all have their roots in the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1814 GMT (0214 HKT)
Sally Kohn says Boehner's lawsuit threat is nonsense that wastes taxpayer money, distracts from GOP's failure to pass laws to help Americans
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1526 GMT (2326 HKT)
Speaker John Boehner says President Obama has circumvented Congress with his executive actions and plans on filing suit against the President this month
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1331 GMT (2131 HKT)
Hands down, it's 'Hard Day's Night,' says Gene Seymour-- the exhilarating, anarchic and really fun big screen debut for the Beatles. It's 50 years old this weekend
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 2201 GMT (0601 HKT)
Belinda Davis says World War I plunged millions of women across the globe into "men's jobs," even as they kept home and hearth. The legacy continues into today.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1824 GMT (0224 HKT)
Pablo Alvarado says all the children trying to cross the U.S. border shows immigration is a humanitarian crisis that can't be solved with soldiers and handcuffs.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Elizabeth Mitchell says Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi dreamt up the symbolic colossus not for money, but to embody a concept--an artwork to amaze for its own sake. Would anyone do that today?
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says Jamaica sold two protected islands to China for a huge seaport, which could kill off a rare iguana and hurt ecotourism.
ADVERTISEMENT