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Month: February, 2013


The day after my last post, I came across something that coincidentally brought together my last two themes: Increments and Fail.

Economist Tim Harford tells the story of the British Olympic Cycling Team’s success in the track events where they won seven of the ten available gold medals at London 2012.  While many reasons can be given for their success, Tim highlights the efforts of sports scientist Matt Parker, Head of Marginal Improvements for the GB Cycling Team.  He is credited for helping to identify various ways in which the Team could improve their performance, including:

  • Heated Pants, which helped keep the athletes’ muscles warm while waiting for the race to begin;
  • Cleaning bike tyres with alcohol to give them better grip for a faster get away; and
  • Devising ways of helping the athletes to recover during the one hour wait between the semi-final and final races (GB athletes often achieved faster times in the finals vs semi-finals, whereas the competition generally recorded the opposite).

Searching out these marginal improvements helped the GB athletes dominate in the velodrome.  Tim suggests that we can all use similar techniques to find ways of improving everything we do.

But when we become too engrossed by incremental improvements, we can fool ourselves into believing that the sum of many little successes equals one big discovery.  We would like to think that investing in low risk/low cost endeavours is sufficient.  However the truth is that small efforts rarely win big prizes, London 2012 notwithstanding.  Like Venture Capitalists, we must be willing to back long shots, which by definition usually fail.  And that brings us back to the question of how we deal with failure.

Increments (3)

As you can tell from the fact that this is my third post titled “Increments” I love stories about how little things can make a big difference.  Here’s something I heard on a BBC Radio 4 Things We Forgot to Remember podcast titled “The Junkers of Woodbridge Airfield”.  In this story the crew of a Luftwaffe Junkers JU88 night fighter landed their aircraft at an East Anglian RAF base in July 1944 because its navigator mistook it for a friendly airfield in Northern Europe.  The rookie crew’s simple navigational error had thus handed the Allies a huge gift that would save thousands of British aircrew from death or capture in the final year of the WWII.

I’ll leave you to listen to the podcast to appreciate for yourself the enormous significance of this little event.  Suffice to say once again that we should be unsurprised to find significant things come from unexpected places.


An article in today’s paper postulates that parents who try to keep their children from failing actually cause them to fail.  The writer points out that it is only when kids fail that they have the opportunity to truly learn.  Helping a child pick himself up when things go awry teaches him perseverance and makes him resilient.  That sounds plausible to me.

As I was thinking about this some more, I came across another article:

“If you believe that your talents are inborn or fixed, then you will try to avoid failure at all costs because failure is proof of your limitation. People with a fixed mindset like to solve the same problems over and over again. It reinforces their sense of competence.”

Hey, that sounds like me.  I don’t believe that all talents are inborn, but I do like solving the same problems again and again (take my job for instance).  The author goes on to give the de rigeur athlete’s example:

“Michael Jordan, arguably the world’s best basketball player, has a growth mindset. Most successful people do. In high school he was cut from the basketball team but that obviously didn’t discourage him: ‘I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career, I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.’”

So it’s a growth mindset that my children and I need.  He ends with one final piece of wisdom:

“In business, we have to be discriminating about when we choose to challenge ourselves. In high risk, high leverage situations, it’s better to stay within your current capability. In lower risk situations, where the consequences of failure are less, better to push the envelope. The important point is to know that pushing the envelope, that failing, is how you learn and grow and succeed. It’s your opportunity.”

“Why You Need to Fail” by Peter Bregman, Harvard Business Review