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Screwing Up to Succeed


This expands upon thoughts expressed at JimMillikenProject.blogspot.com on January 23, 2011.


              Thomas Edison was not the inventor of the first electric light bulb. He was the inventor of the successful electric light bulb. A lot of people, including Edison, had already created devices that produced light. All those attempts burned out.

              Thomas Edison was the first person to come up with a light bulb that burned long enough to be a viable tool of the American household and community, and therefore a profitable commercial product.

              Edison went through a lot of experiments – somewhere around 3,000 – before he found the right combination of material and internal atmosphere to achieve the desired result.

              He purportedly was asked why he didn’t give up during this seemingly endless series of failures. Along about nonworking attempt Number 1,983, what kept him going? The apocryphal report is that Edison replied, “There were no failures. At that point, we had successfully proven that 1,983 potential solutions were not the right one.”

              Now, Edison had a lot of money he had made from previous successful inventions, and few of us would claim he is in every way a role model for present-day managers and project managers.


              So what does the Edison example say to us screw-ups?


              First of all, he ignored the prevailing wisdom. He did his homework. He understood the science that was at the root of this problem. He got clear about what must be known or researched. He committed to a clearly identified, specific, worthwhile outcome. He persisted, driven by confidence born of preparation.

              All of these practices are keys to success, and are perfectly usable by us.

              You see, there are failures, and then there are other failures. The first thing that matters is the kind of failure. The second vital matter is what happens next.

              Failure is the route to success. You can’t get to the Promised Land without navigating a few swamps and making a few wrong turns. There will be problems, and a fair number of them are going to be of your own making.

Dumb mistakes, frankly, happen. Careless mistakes. They sometimes are committed by people who have potential they may never get to fulfill because they screwed up.

              But actually, the mistakes are meaningless in and of themselves. What is crucially important is why any particular mistake happened, and what you did about it. Stupid errors, even careless ones, don’t determine your future. You do.


              An interesting illustration of this point in the world of organizations occurred in the newspaper business. It started with a survey in which editors in every state were asked to identify the best papers (other than their own).

              A scholar decided to study a representative example of the winners to determine what they were doing that produced the performance rated so highly by their competitors and peers. This project involved interviews with people within newspaper organizations of all kinds (large, small, daily, weekly) in states throughout the nation. Employees from top executives to loading-dock workers were asked for input.

              One result that may surprise a lot of people was the organizations’ attitude toward failure. “If we’re not failing 60 percent of the time, we’re not trying,” one interviewee said. Remember, these were outfits whose superior status was determined by very critical, competitive judges.

              Think about it. How can you be a big success when you blow it six times out of 10? Because you know how to fail, that’s how.


              Now there’s an interesting discussion for us responsible individuals in the world of work: How do you fail . . . successfully?

              First, you expect to fail. You know your progress depends upon trying new ideas, and you know some of them will work and some won’t. So you conduct these personal initiatives with a full intent to succeed, partnered with an effective tracking and response mechanism for variances. No failure is fatal, because it never gets that far.

              You install the tracking process by establishing clear expectations for actions and outcomes, with risk management practices that are realistic as well as vigorous. You prepare to analyze variances with an eye to salvaging value from failures as well as maximizing the payoff from success.

              It’s a sad truth of human experience: We pay more attention to our failures than to our successes. The good stuff we just grandly accept, for whatever reason. The flops can be sources of continuing pain and self-flagellation, if we can’t deflect our guilt.


              The route to success is the acceptance of failure as a necessary condition. Actually achieving the success depends upon the competent management of the failures as building blocks. The end result is the sum of mature management of the ups and downs of real initiatives in a real world.  


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