No Innovator’s Delimma Here: In Praise of Failure (by James Dyson)

by pmckaughan on May 17, 2011

In “No Innovator’s Dilemma Here: In Praise of Failure” James Dyson (Wired, Nov. 2004), Sir James Dyson, the millionaire inventor declares: “From cardboard and duct tape to ABS polycarbonate, it took 5,127 prototypes and 15 years to get it right. ….When it comes to failure, I’m trumped by Edison who famously said, ‘I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”…(speaking of innovation Dyson says) “It’s a never-ending process that is enormously rewarding, and endlessly frustrating.”


One of my biggest mistakes as a mission leader has been to expect too much from a re-org, plan or strategic initiative. After all those plans and insights were the result of much prayer and my deep desire to be a good steward of the resources God had placed in my care. My exalted expectations were rarely met.

My response to results that didn’t measure up was also usually misguided. I would cut my losses and discard the idea and go on to something else, or doggedly insist the endeavor was a success on grounds I had never envisioned. However, over many years I have learned, like Dyson, that successful innovation is driven by a process of continual learning and adjustment. Failure should be seen as an expected and significant part of the development process. My fight or flight response is not the path to successful breakthroughs. (Please note: the discussion of what constitutes success or failure will wait for another time.)

Realistic and disciplined evaluation of apparent failures should lead to a next step in the discovery and innovation process. The key here is a truthful, disciplined, Spirit led, learning process. Disciplined experimentation where one learns from failures and adjusts the product or process is the foundation for true breakthroughs. This is true in both technology and mission. In times of deep change, doggedly following yesterday’s successful protocol is usually doomed to result in failure. We all mostly get that.

The part we don’t get is that it is also unrealistic to expect that an effective ministry breakthrough will burst fully formed from the womb of our inspired creativity. The “endlessly frustrating” discipline of the innovator’s “never-ending” process of experimentation is essential. Through our apparent failures we tune our hearts and minds, programs and processes to a growing understanding of the Creator’s mandate and today’s world. This process can result in “enormously rewarding” innovative breakthroughs. Failures are to be expected-for each one of us they are a component of God’s providential process of discovery. They frame our most “teachable moments.”  Failure is His dynamic method of forming us as we seek more complete alignment with His purpose for our generation.

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