The right kind of wrong
In 1968, 3M researcher Spencer Silver was experimenting with an adhesive for aircraft when he made a mistake with a chemical and came up with a weak paste that could be easily stuck or unstuck from surfaces. This could not be used for model airplanes, let alone real ones.
He did not know how his “acrylate copolymer microspheres” would be used, but he secured a patent. In a company forum six years later, another researcher, Arthur Fry, listened closely as Silver described what he accidentally came up with.
In church one day, Fry was getting frustrated with finding the correct page in his hymnal. The small pieces of paper he placed as bookmarks fluttered out easily, but he remembered Silver’s creation, and for the next months, he refined it until he came up with what would become the iconic Post-it note.
These strips made great bookmarks, but 3M did not see much commercial potential. One day, Fry gave a report to his boss with notes written on the sticky papers and his boss returned these with his own notes. Eureka! Sticky notes rather than bookmarks.
Dubbed Press n’ Peel, they at first did not sell well. But Fry did not give up. He gave out pads to colleagues and kept track of how many were consumed. The data was so encouraging that 3M did another marketing pitch in 1980, and today Post-it is a household name.
Individuals often come up with great ideas, but for these to help the wider community, transforming failure into success must go beyond the personal. Even if the initial discovery of Post-it was unintentional, Fry insisted that its development into a useful product “was not an accident.” If 3M management had scolded Silver for making a mistake, colleagues had pooh-poohed the idea or sharing odd findings had been prohibited, then Post-it might never have come to be.
Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, who narrates this story in her book “The Right Kind of Wrong,” says that Post-it was “instead the result of a series of intelligent failures, supported by a system designed to encourage persistence to produce innovation.”
“In one of the most provocative elements of 3M’s system—provocative, at least, in an era in which companies valorized efficiency—engineers were allowed to spend 15 percent of their paid time pursuing crazy ideas that might turn out to be failures,” says Edmondson.
“Later adopted by Silicon Valley companies such as Google and IDEO, the policy reflected an understanding that paying scientists to experiment would produce a lot of failures along with the occasional lucrative success. The economics work—as long as you’re patient. That is, so long as you expand the boundary of the system to include the future profitability of the company, not just the present.”
Unfortunately, most businesses (and other environments, including schools and families) see failure as intolerable. Because individuals are penalized for making mistakes, many fear to speak up (as seen in tragic rocket, airplane, shipping accidents) or to exert effort in challenging tasks (many students do badly in math because they give up when they cannot immediately get the answer, which may make their parents angry).
Does this mean that we should celebrate failure? Should we excuse poor performance? If there is no accountability, what will enable employees, students to do their best? Some companies do not want their employees to work from home due to lack of trust—this despite numerous findings that productivity soars when motivated employees work flexibly.
“A culture that makes it safe to talk about failure can coexist with high standards,” says Edmondson. “Psychological safety isn’t synonymous with ‘anything goes.’ A workplace can be psychologically safe and still expect people to do excellent work and meet deadlines … [In fact] insisting on high standards without psychological safety is a recipe for failure—and not the good kind. People are more likely to mess up when they’re stressed.”