What I Learned About Failure on My Summer Vacation

When I was young, we lived near a wonderful library where every summer we could participate in a reading club — earning stars and ribbons for reading and completing oral book reports on what we learned from a wide variety of books set aside on a special shelf. The books were varied and the librarians were invariably friendly and the library was a welcome air-conditioned destination on a hot summer afternoon.

At the end of the summer, when we were asked to write that ever-popular back-to-school essay – ‘what did you learn on your summer vacation,’ I would often share the stories from my favorite summer books – Up A Road Slowly or Harriet the Spy, reliving the joy I felt at those first discoveries.

Having just returned from my summer vacation, I thought it would be useful to follow in this early tradition and write a few blog posts about what I learned from my travels to some destinations that were a little more exotic than the city library but equally fascinating. Let me start with the highlight of my trip to Sweden – a visit to the Vasa Museum in Stockholm and what universal lessons I learned there about failure.

The Vasa Museum is the home of an actual 17th century warship that sank a few minutes into its maiden voyage just off the coast of Sweden with all hands on deck. In 1956, the boat was relocated, brought to the surface, preserved over the next several decades, and is now on display in all its glory. Today, the Vasa Museum is the most visited museum in Scandinavia. One minute into your visit, you’ll know why.

The first thing you notice about this ship is that it is ENORMOUS and it towers over everyone – it actually took my breath away the first time I saw it because I just had no idea that in 1628 they could build a ship like this. The hull was built of over a thousand oak trees, the masts are over 50 meters high (164 feet) and it is displayed so that you can walk all around and even touch the massive warship. (This photo does not do it justice. Take a moment and do an Internet search for “Vasa Warship images” to get a better sense of its mass.)

Once you get over the ship’s enormity, the next thing that amazes is that the Vasa is actually a story of failure – failure on a truly colossal level. And you have to appreciate the Swedes for not only sharing this truly amazing discovery but also welcoming visitors to learn about failure as part of their exploration of the museum.

So what did I learn about failure from visiting the Vasa Museum?

1) Failure is rarely the result of just one mistake

During the two years (1626-1627) it took to build the Vasa, there were hundreds of people involved with the thousands of decisions that went into building of what was to be the pride of the Swedish Navy. Like many colossal failures to follow, it was the combination of many bad decisions that led to its sinking. Too narrow a hull, too many cannons and not enough ballast were just the most obvious shortcomings.

Having spent my early career working at a company that shipped several spectacular failures into the market, I can tell you this is almost universally true. While people spend a lot of time after the fact pointing the finger at one person or team, it is usually a combination of factors that bring about the biggest failures.

How will you assure that small mistakes don’t add up?

2) It’s critical to speak truth to power

Although building a warship should be left to boat builders, the king, Gustav II Adolf, had the power to override everyone else’s decisions. Speculation is that he encouraged the addition of far too many cannons (it was war time) and hundreds of decorative elements (gigantic sculptures of lions and cupids and warriors) that added to the ship’s beauty but also made it top heavy. Without someone authorized to speak truth to power, these decisions went unchallenged.

"Vasa stern color model" by Peter Isotalo - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Vasa stern color model” by Peter Isotalo – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Never is this more clearly demonstrated today than in Silicon Valley – the world of hot-shot venture capitalists who often believe that their ideas should override those of the product teams they fund. It is a rare first-time CEO who will stand up to them. Yet speaking truth to power is not only necessary, it’s often required.

Who on your team is authorized to speak truth to power?

3) The right talent is everything

The work to build Vasa was led by an experienced shipwright who fell ill and later died before the boat was completed. Responsibility for construction was turned over to his second in command who did not share his boss’ level of expertise. Looking back, we have to wonder what would have happened if another experienced shipwright had been available to take over.

A recent McKinsey study called the War for Talent shows that this problem has not disappeared. Of 6000 managers and executives they surveyed, 75% said that their companies either don’t have enough talent sometimes or are chronically short of talent. My experience working with thousands of entrepreneurs and executives has shown me that having the right talent in place has always been so much more important than finding the best idea. (For a fun blog on finding great ideas, read here.)

What are you doing to assure you have the right talent in place?

4) Don’t be afraid to admit defeat

The most alarming part of the Vasa story is that prior to launch there had been a test voyage to assure the ship was seaworthy. Even in the short span of a few minutes on the water, it was readily apparent that there were indeed deep structural flaws at work. The boat almost capsized even in light wind. But rather than admit defeat, the test was immediately aborted and no one was made the wiser.

How many times have we all done that – ignored the warning signs and forged ahead regardless? Science is rife with such stories – pesticides causing fertility problems, asbestos poisoning in industry, nicotine causing cancer. There is even a two-volume book – The Late Lessons of Early Warnings – that documents case study after case study. But we continue to trick ourselves into believing that we will be successful despite all evidence to the contrary. And even when the safeguards, like a test voyage, are put in place, the results are often ignored.

How can you assure that you aren’t ignoring the warning signs?

Before I close, I believe there is one final lesson from the Vasa Museum that needs to be shared. As I mentioned, in the 1950’s the warship was raised phoenix-like after many attempts and despite enormous dangers and has been restored over many decades. The Vasa today stands as one of the real wonders of the world and is having a far greater impact than it ever would have, had it not sunk in the first place. It stands not just as a remarkable warship; it stands as a remarkable failed warship whose lessons can perhaps influence millions not to make the same mistakes.

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