January 2012 | 

Brilliant Mistakes

brilliant mistakes

The Wright brothers' success at Kitty Hawk; patent clerk Albert Einstein's questions about the nature of time, space, and energy; EMI's signing of the much-rejected Beatles; one woman's "Year of Yes," in which she dated every man who asked her. In his new book Brilliant Mistakes: Finding Success on the Far Side of Failure, Paul J.H. Schoemaker explores some of the startling, and sometimes revolutionary, discoveries and insights that can occur as the result of mistakes.

Schoemaker, research director of Wharton's Mack Center for Technological Innovation, acknowledges that he is exploring a paradoxical notion: "Most companies will do anything to avoid making a mistake, and judiciously cover up those that occur, while I advocate for making more of them — deliberately." He makes his case using research and insights from work with over 100 organizations, explaining how brilliant mistakes can lead to accelerated learning, innovation, and discovery.

In the first part of the book, Schoemaker addresses how to learn more from unexpected outcomes, presenting a process for discovering why an action or thought was in error. The second half of Brilliant Mistakes suggests making deliberate mistakes to create new portals of discovery. He presents a step-by-step process for carefully and strategically choosing mistakes, describing how his own company (Decision Strategies International) used this approach to challenge deeply held assumptions that proved to be wrong.

"To my way of thinking," says Schoemaker, who is Learning Director of Wharton Executive Education's Critical Thinking: Real-World, Real-Time Decisions and teaches in the Advanced Management Program, "mistakes can be brilliant in two ways. The first is to learn from an unexpected setback so much that it starts to dwarf the cost of the mistake. The second way, which is more difficult to achieve, is to create strategies, organizations, or cultures where people can make the types of mistakes where the learning benefits far exceed the cost of the mistake."

For organizations that want to compete on innovation or are planning change initiatives, Schoemaker's book will change their view of mistakes and their value. With powerful examples of the benefits of strategic, deliberate errors, Schoemaker argues convincingly, and provides a roadmap for, making brilliant mistakes.