“Fail fast, fail cheap, fail often,” has become a mantra for the digital age. Stodgy old dinosaurs may be afraid of failure, but it doesn’t bother the new breed of entrepreneurs. They are happy to exist in perpetual beta and their investors can afford eight or nine failures in ten if one or two pay off big.
Yet there’s nothing fun or useful about failure. While we shouldn’t fear failure, only a maniac or a fool would embrace it. Failure means that something went wrong, that we messed up. Failure happens when we do things we shouldn’t have.
The truth is that embracing failure is, all too often, a cop-out. Just like managers who suggest a re-org to “unsilo” their enterprise or say they could deliver performance if only they had the “right people,” many in technology believe that failure comes with the territory. It doesn’t. Technology only succeeds when it mitigates failure and makes the world a better place.
In January 2010, Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff published a working paper, which warned that countries suffer dearly once their sovereign debt reaches more than 90% of GDP. Their work quickly became the centerpiece of a fierce political debate. In the end, it turned out that the two esteemed economists had simply made a coding error in Excel.
The stakes are much higher in cancer research, where life and death hang in the balance. Yet the overwhelming majority of studies can’t be replicated. Largely, this is a data failure. Negative results are rarely, if ever, published, so prior evidence is mostly discarded. 95% confidence doesn’t mean much if 95% of studies aren’t taken into account.
As Timo Hannay of Digital Science told me, problems such as these are eminently solvable through technology. With publishing and data storage so cheap and accessible, there’s no reason why data cannot be published along with research papers. There is also ample room to publish all results, even negative findings.
He also sees modern project management technology, similar to that which is used in most industries today, as a vehicle to capture full experimental details at the source, drastically curtailing errors in data interpretation. In fact, one of his portfolio companies, Labguru, is becoming a leader in the field.
When I first moved overseas to Eastern Europe in the late 90’s, I didn’t know anyone in my new country, couldn’t speak the language, read the newspaper or watch local TV. It was loney. At some points, it got so bad that I would call my bank back in the states collect, just to try to strike up a conversation as I inquired about my balance.
In his new book, A Social Strategy, Harvard’s Mikołaj Piskorski calls these types of situations “social failures” and you don’t need to cross an ocean to find them. We all encounter barriers to interacting with others in everyday life for a variety of reasons.
Sometimes, such as when I was separated from my family and friends, the barriers are physical and economic, but in other cases they are social in nature. For instance, I may feel strange about calling everybody I know to tell them about my child’s accomplishments or a new promotion at work. It can also be awkward to ask friends personal questions, even if I’m interested in how their life is going.
Technology has helped us overcome many of these barriers. Today, I find it pretty easy to keep in touch with friends overseas through social media and Skype. I can also keep up with their lives through my newsfeed on Facebook. As Piskorski makes clear in his book, overcoming social failures like these also has real economic value.