Paul J.H. Schoemaker’s ‘Brilliant Mistakes’: Finding Opportunity in Failures

Groupon’s rejection of Google’s bid. Subscription changes at Netflix. The New York City Schools’ hiring of a former publishing executive. Do events like these, which were considered to be colossal mistakes by some, also have the opportunity to result in game-changing innovations? That is one of the questions that Paul J.H. Schoemaker, research director of Wharton’s Mack Center for Technological Innovation and chairman and founder of consulting firm Decision Strategies International, has been exploring throughout his career. In his new book, Brilliant Mistakes: Finding Success on the Far Side of Failure, Schoemaker describes a long list of inventions — including personal copiers, ATM machines, organic food and tobacco-free cigarettes — that, though they were judged as mistakes by the conventional wisdom of the time, proved to be brilliant.

Just as these ideas were ridiculed at the time, there are many silly ideas floating around today in business that will prove to be brilliant in the future,” Schoemaker notes. “The challenge for managers is to recognize them, and this can only happen if leaders create sufficient space for productive mistakes to occur.” Schoemaker identifies two ways to take advantage of the opportunities that can flow from mistakes: being open to learning from professional or personal errors to identify new ways forward, and deliberately making mistakes, or challenging conventional wisdom, in order to speed up learning within your organization. He argues that not making mistakes may be the greatest mistake of all.

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