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Paul J.H. Schoemaker discusses “Brilliant Mistakes” with Handshake Journal

Published: June 16, 2015

REDEFINING FAILURE AND SUCCESS: Why the “Brilliant Mistake” matters


Paul J. H. Schoemaker is the author of Brilliant Mistakes: Finding Success at the Far Side of Failure (Wharton Digital Press). He serves as Research Director of the Mack Institute for Innovation Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and is also the founder and chairman of Decision Strategies International, Inc., a consulting and training firm specializing in strategic planning and executive development. Here, he explains to Handshake readers how making a mistake in a project—even a large-scale infrastructure public-private partnership (PPP)—can ultimately be valuable, and is often the only path to success.

What is a “brilliant mistake”?

 Everyone alive today has benefitted from someone else’s huge mistake. Alexander Fleming’s accidental discovery of penicillin, the world’s first and most successful antibiotic, involved a sloppy lab, keen perception, and an exceptionally well-prepared mind. The ill-fated flight at Kitty Hawk resulted in modern aviation. If you think of mistakes as potentially powerful “portals of discovery,” you start to see the beneficial side of error and the way it can lead to innovation.

In doing business today, the challenge for managers is to recognize that there must be room to make mistakes, and this can only happen if leaders create sufficient space for productive mistakes to occur. This is no secret among successful managers. As IBM founder Tom Watson famously observed, “If you want to succeed faster, make more mistakes.” Although some situations clearly cannot afford any mistakes, such as brain surgery, flying an airplane, or running a nuclear power plant, whenever innovation is important, some degree of error needs to be tolerated. Albert Einstein put it very well: “If you have never made a mistake, you have never tried anything new.”