BusinessWeek Makes Us Laugh; Laughter is Good

Business failures can make for interesting reading - especially when an enterprising reporter serves up the juicy details.

When speaking in the abstract, it’s pretty easy for business gurus to pay homage to failure. Just start with a familiar quotation (“Learning starts with failure,” or “When at first you don’t succeed …”), toss in a few bromides about the importance of risk-taking, sprinkle with a folksy anecdote about overcoming some formative childhood catastrophe and voila — you’ve got a sappy speech for the next corporate retreat.

Lecture circuit nonsense aside, though, business failures can make for interesting reading — especially when an enterprising reporter serves up the juicy details.

In its current cover story, entitled “How Failure Breeds Success,” BusinessWeek sets out to do just that. Along the way, the magazine’s reporters attempt to draw a distinction between outright “flops” and so-called “intelligent failures,” and to chronicle various innovative strategies that businesses have dreamed up for coping with their employees’ failures, ranging from “failure parties” to “narrative storytelling booklets about failed projects.”

The result is an article that is at times fun and surprising, even if the overall conclusion (… try, and try again!) is not the stuff of eureka moments.

In other words, BusinessWeek offers up some truly awful pop business psychology: “‘Getting good’ at failure … means leaders — not just on a podium at the annual meeting, but in the trenches, every day — who create an environment safe for taking risks and who share stories of their own mistakes.”

But share they do — and the article is saved.

Our favorite bit is the story of a California-based accounting consulting firm that tried to attract young customers with a marketing campaign, which BusinessWeek charitably describes as “an ill-fated attempt to combine tax-filing drudgery with hip-hop style.”

The resulting Web site,, didn’t drum up much business. Nevertheless, the company’s unsuccessful foray into the bling-bling world of 1040s inspired it to conduct more formal postmortems of its dumb ideas. For example, the company recently sponsored a session for its employees entitled, “When learning hurts.”

Elsewhere in the article, BusinessWeek’s reporters manage to elicit some novel analysis from a Harvard Business School professor who compares business innovation to scientific progress (as the philosopher Karl Popper might define it). In both cases, empirical falsifiability (i.e., proving various ideas to be wrongheaded) is the key to advancement.

“Failure provides more ‘learning’ in a strictly logical or technical sense [than success],” professor Amy Edmondson tells the magazine. “It’s a principle of the scientific method that you can only disconfirm, never confirm, a hypothesis.”

Ultimately, though, BusinessWeek is never able to fully diagnose what makes for a good failure versus a bad one. Instead, it settles for this: the best failures are the ones “that happen early and inexpensively and that contribute new insights about your customers.”

Hmm. Anyway, that bit about the silly accountants was great.

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Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.