Thursday, March 29, 2012

Game Designer Colin Northway: "I was looking under smaller and smaller rocks for game ideas"

Another mistake story from the GDC 2012 "Failure Workshop." This was excerpted from Kris Graft's excellent writeup in Gamasutra, a gaming industry site:

Fantastic Contraption developer Colin Northway talked about the importance of identifying failure in its early stages. He spent several months trying to find the gameplay breakthrough in projects such as the bird-inspired Flocking, but they just didn't materialize.

Flocking was a project "that I thought was fantastic and a good idea, but one ... that I couldn't get to function as a video game," said Northway. He stressed to developers that just because you're really in love with an idea, "you won't always be able to make a game about that."

"I was looking under smaller and smaller rocks for game ideas," he said. That search is often futile. "That's the downfall of a lot of game designers," he said.

"When you're doing game design you should be picking among the ripest fruit... your job is to find the sweetest fruit. ... your job is not to eke something out of the cracks that will be playable."

Now, Northway feels that he has found his way out of the game design wilderness. He's currently working on a beautiful game called Incredipede, which appeared at Tokyo Game Show's Sense of Wonder Night. "I hope none of you get lost, and I hope all of you make your way out," he said.

I salute the GDC for holding this session, and especially to the game designers for sharing their stories. There is loads of research referred to on this site to show that destigmatizing and sharing mistakes is immensely helpful for learning and for ongoing improvement. Finding one's way out of the wilderness is a very valuable experience, and telling others about it is a great act of generosity.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Tim Harford's video compilation of mistake quotes (with a blues soundtrack)

Tim Harford, author of "Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure," posted a video compilation of quotes about mistakes and failure, backed by Charley Jordan's "Titanic Blues."

My favorite discovery in the video was this quote by Laurence Peter, co-author of "The Peter Principle":

Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and informed just to be undecided about them.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Ron Adner mini-podcast: Why smart companies make avoidable innovation mistakes

After our recent interview with Ron Adner, author of "The Wide Lens: A New Strategy for Innovation," we got to chatting, and in that exchange we talked about the reasons smart companies can fall into the trap of a too-narrow viewpoint. I

You can learn more about The Wide Lens at its website, where chapter 1 is available to read for free.

Ron Adner after interview discussion (4:15)

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Not a news flash, but important: negative experiences are more potent than positive ones

In today's New York Times, business writer Alina Tugend (quoted elsewhere on this site) takes up a topic we know well on this site - the potency of negative experiences, and their ability to outweigh seemingly equal positive ones ("Praise Is Fleeting, but Brickbats We Recall"). A key excerpt:

Roy F. Baumeister, a professor of social psychology at Florida State University, captured the idea in the title of a journal article he co-authored in 2001, “Bad Is Stronger Than Good,” which appeared in The Review of General Psychology. “Research over and over again shows this is a basic and wide-ranging principle of psychology,” he said. “It’s in human nature, and there are even signs of it in animals,” in experiments with rats.

As the article, which is a summary of much of the research on the subject, succinctly puts it: “Bad emotions, bad parents and bad feedback have more impact than good ones. Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones.”

Tugend also quotes one of our favorite authors, Teresa Amabile, describing the research that formed the basis for her book The Progress Principle:

“We found that of all the events that could make for a great day at work, the most important was making progress on meaningful work — even a small step forward,” said Professor Amabile.... “A setback, on the other hand, meant the employee felt blocked in some way from making such progress. Setbacks stood out on the worst days at work.”

After analyzing some 12,000 diary entries, Professor Amabile said she found that the negative effect of a setback at work on happiness was more than twice as strong as the positive effect of an event that signaled progress. And the power of a setback to increase frustration is over three times as strong as the power of progress to decrease frustration.

“This applies even to small events,” she said.

Learning from mistakes, missteps, bad experiences, etc., is so powerful because mistakes "make a deep imprint," in the words of Paul Schoemaker. The warm glow of success can cause us, by contrast, to soften and shrug off what we could have learned. Don't we want to use bad experiences to our greatest benefit?

It's not directly mentioned in the article, but I'll add that a sense of humor, especially with respect to oneself, is a significant help when it comes to accepting and learning from negative experiences.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Media mistake milestone: "This American Life" retracts a story on Apple

A milestone in the history of the media occurred last week. Ira Glass' radio program "This American Life" retracted an entire episode it had produced regarding Apple's supplier Foxconn and the working conditions in its factories in China. The episode in question relied heavily on the first-person account of Mike Daisey (creator of the monologue "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," an excerpt of which provided much of the material for the program). Glass and his team discovered, thanks to reporting from Marketplace's Rob Schmitz, that a number of the incidents Daisey presented as factual were fabricated.

The retraction itself wasn't the milestone. This was: rather than simply announce the error, apologize and move on, This American Life produced an entire new episode dedicated to the retraction, investigating the process that led them to make these errors and, finally, presenting what is actually known about Apple and Foxconn, in an effort to imprint the true story instead of the fabricated. Such an open investigation and discussion of a significant mistake is unprecedented, in my experience.

Some highlights:

1) The admission:

[Ira Glass:] At the time that we were fact-checking his story, we asked Mike for the contact information for the interpreter that he used when he was visiting China, who he calls Cathy in his monologue. We wanted to talk to her to confirm that the incidents that he described all happened as he describes them. And when we asked for her information, he told us, well, her real name wasn't Cathy. It was Anna.

And he had a cell phone number for her, but he said that when he tried the number these days, it doesn't work anymore. He said he had no way to reach her. And because the other things that Mike told us about Apple and about Foxconn seemed to check out, we saw no reason to doubt him, and we dropped this. We didn't try further to reach the translator. That was a mistake.

I can say now in retrospect that when Mike Daisey wouldn't give us contact information for his interpreter, we should have killed the story rather than run it. We never should have broadcast this story without talking to that woman.

2) On how the mistake impacted the show and public radio:

I should say I am not happy to have to come to you and tell you that something that we presented on the radio as factual is not factual. All of us in public radio stand together. And I have friends and colleagues on lots of other shows who, like us here at This American Life, work hard to do accurate, independent reporting week in, week out. I and my co-workers here at This American Life, we are not happy to have done anything to hurt the reputation of the journalism that happens on this radio station every day. So we want to be completely transparent about what we got wrong and what we now believe is the truth.

Papers like the New York Times regularly print corrections and retractions, but never (even in the case of an Editor's Note, the highest-profile correction the Times makes) does it feature the correction equal to the original. On the web page, corrections are signaled at the top of the page and then detailed below the piece.

News organizations have run juicy stories that later turned out to be fabricated since the very beginning. In the future, let's hope more organizations are as open and self-critical as This American Life was in this case.

Some other notable media fabrications:

Janet Cooke, Washington Post, 1981. (Cooke's story, "Jimmy's World," is here.)
Jayson Blair, New York Times, 2003

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Peyton Manning going to Denver: "I have to go from now and make it the right decision"

In an interview on NFL Network with Peyton Manning, after his decision to sign with the Denver Broncos after 14 years with the Indianapolis Colts, said this:

This decision was hard.... I had to pick one [team]. I wanted to go to all of 'em at one point. But, like the other decisions I made in the past, I decided to make it and not look back. And to go from now and make it the right decision. I have to go to work to make it the right decision.

Showing a true sense of agency. If things don't work out in Denver, Manning won't blame anyone else. It's more likely, however, that he is successful - because he will work to make it so. He has taken ownership of the decision and the outcome.

Jerome Chazen from Liz Claiborne: "We allowed the growth potential to overtake the company"

This mistake story is from Knowledge@Wharton's interview with Liz Claiborne co-founder Jerome Chazen, author of "My Life at Liz Claiborne: How We Broke the Rules and Built the Largest Fashion Company in the World."

Knowledge@Wharton: What would you say your biggest mistake was running the company, or even before you became CEO, during that whole 30-year tenure?

Chazen: Well, with the benefit of hindsight, I would have worked harder to moderate our growth. I think we allowed the growth potential to overtake the company instead of us being in charge of it. It's a hard thing to explain. But you know, it was so exciting, for me anyway, to report better and better numbers, especially after we went public. I mean I loved it. I loved those quarterly [numbers] that were up 20% or 40%, whatever.

I think, looking back now, that I got carried away, that we should have done things more moderately. I very much appreciate, and I do mention in the book a couple of times, that the Ralph Lauren model was a much better model long range. He's still around and still cooking, and things are going well. Now of course he's primarily in the men's business, which is a much different business and in many ways a much easier business. But he balanced out. I wanted our company to eventually become very important in our own retail business. Unfortunately, we had grown so fast with the department stores and we were so locked in and dependent upon those people -- not only for the clothing we made, but for every other division in the company, including jewelry and fragrance and accessories and so on and so forth -- that we just couldn't move anymore. We couldn't make any moves.

Knowledge@Wharton: Too big, too fast.

Chazen: We did open some stores, but we were never able to be successful because, at that time, we were getting caught in the whole sale mentality of the department stores, which is another thing.... I tried very, very hard to stay out of those messes with the department stores, but it just became impossible.

Chazen vividly describes here what a seductive mistress growth can be. It was "exciting." He "loved" it. But at the end of the day, growth was a trap.

The company called Liz Claiborne will change its name in May 2012 to Fifth and Pacific. It owns the Juicy Couture, Lucky Jeans and Kate Spade brands. The Liz Claiborne brands have been retired.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Mistake Bank podcast: "The Wide Lens" author Ron Adner shares stories of innovation mistakes

the wide lens coverI had the opportunity to interview Ron Adner, professor at the Tuck School of Business and author of "The Wide Lens: A New Strategy of Innovation." The book details the challenges with innovating when you are dependent on more than you and the end-customer - including intermediaries, co-innovators, etc., who influence the success of your new venture.

Ron shares a couple of great stories, but perhaps the most significant part of the interview is the discussion that happens after each story. One of the great benefits of sharing mistake stories is dialoguing with others about what happened, why, and how we can learn from it. I have found this sort of dialogue very helpful in my own learning, and I'm happy to share this neat example with everyone.

You can learn more about The Wide Lens at its website, where chapter 1 (in which Adner evaluates the Michelin story he relates in this podcast) is available to read for free.

Ron Adner, author of The Wide Lens, on innovation ecosystem mistakes (28 minutes)

0:30 - How did The Wide Lens come about?
2:30 - The Michelin mistake story
6:45 - Discussing the Michelin story
13:15 - The inhalable insulin mistake story
19:30 - Discussion: The value blueprint, leading/following, timing, etc.
24:10 - How "The Wide Lens" helps innovators

Monday, March 19, 2012

Game designer Scott Anderson: game failed because "we were driven by external rewards"

Another mistake story from the GDC 2012 "Failure Workshop." This was excerpted from Kris Graft's excellent writeup in Gamasutra, a gaming industry site:

Scott Anderson and his team were working on a puzzle/platformer game called Shadow Physics, a project that appeared at first to be set up for success, but eventually was abandoned.

"About eight months ago we lost our funding, and the game was cancelled," Anderson said. Shadow Physics was previously funded by Indie Fund.

The failure has since sunk in, and Anderson admitted, "The game was a great concept but it wasn't really a lot of fun...ever."

There were other various reasons why Shadow Physics failed. "We were driven by external rewards," such as fortune and fame, Anderson said, instead of a true passion for the project.

There were also problems with the game's tech, and the gameplay relied too much on the physics engine. He said the game was just not "tight," and there were unpredictable game systems.

"The game just didn't work," Anderson said. "We chased certain Braid mechanics a little too much," he added. He said at times there was too much "Braid envy" going on in the game design.

There were also issues with the development process, iteration was becoming expensive, and the hiring process was based on if they liked the person, rather than if he or she was a good fit.

Additionally, communication issues "were a big problem with the team in general." People wanted to avoid conflict, but then it became a "passive aggressive war zone," said Anderson.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Amir Rao of Supergiant Games: Users had "no idea what was happening" when using gardening feature

This mistake story from the GDC 2012 "Failure Workshop" was captured by Kris Graft of Gamasutra, a gaming industry site:

Next up for the [failure] workshop was Amir Rao of Supergiant Games. The studio did ship its first title, Bastion, to much success. But what's not known by most people is that it shipped without one big feature that failed.

Basiton had a rich art style, a unique reactive narrator, and, Rao said, "It was going to have a rich and exciting gardening feature."

The reasons for including this feature were clear for Rao. "Gardening is an aesthetic that everybody understands. ... We wanted to try and take that aesthetic ... and apply that to an action RPG, because that is something that we haven't seen before."

The studio spent a year working on the gardening feature, influenced by games like Viva Pinata, Harvest Moon, and even certain systems from Civilization Revolution.

Player would find seeds out in the world, bring them back to the hub called Bastion, put them in planters, water them, and wait to see what they would become. The problem was that players had "no idea what was happening," said Rao. "It's really hard to communicate the intermediate part of planting" that happens between burying the seed, and having the final plant.

"You know people understand a lot better than planting? A menu," Rao determined.

I empathize with Rao's disconnect with his users, and respect his recognition that the gardening feature wasn't working. It's easy for a product developer to fall in love with certain features, and hard to finally decide to take them out.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Jamie Cheng, game designer, on a failed effort: "We didn't have a conviction of what we wanted to do"

This mistake story from the GDC 2012 "Failure Workshop" was captured by Kris Graft of Gamasutra, a gaming industry site:

Jamie Cheng of Eets and Shank developer Klei Entertainment talked about his studio's failure -- an online game called Sugar Rush. The studio worked on it for three years, did the art style for the game five different times, held three closed betas, and was only two weeks away from a full ship. But it never shipped.

Cheng said the game was originally called Eets: Sugar Rush, and had marshmallows fighting one another. It was greenlit by Nexon in Vancouver.

The game gradually became a mish-mash of ideas from the game developers and ideas from the publisher. It became diluted, and the game didn't really know what it was supposed to be.

Impending failure became clearer when Nexon Vancouver totally shut down, and with that, the backend for the game was gone.

But the studio still didn't want to give up, so it tried to convert Sugar Rush to a game called Scrappers for consoles. But it still didn't ship.

"We didn't have a conviction of what we really wanted to do," said Cheng "...We didn't know [how to work with a publisher] as an independent [studio]."

Klei eventually created and successfully shipped Shank, a game made with a much clearer creative vision.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Linda Rottenberg of Endeavor: "Go Big or Go Home" sometimes means "Go Home"

This story by Linda Rottenberg, co-founder and CEO of Endeavor, an organization promoting entrepreneurship in emerging markets, is part of "Failure Chronicles," a section of the April 2011 "Failure Issue" of Harvard Business Review.

As the plane took off for New Delhi, my mind was still grounded in the intense board meeting I had just held in New York. It was 2007, and Endeavor, the organization I had cofounded a decade earlier to support high-impact entrepreneurs around the world, was expanding rapidly. We had offices in nearly a dozen developing countries, from Brazil to Turkey. But our board was agitating.

“Linda,” the directors said to me firmly, “we’ve been operating in emerging markets for 10 years. Why are we not in India?”

We were not in one of the world’s fastest-growing economies because I felt that India, with its thriving culture of entrepreneurship, was not the right market for us. Endeavor’s mission—to mentor young business leaders, to get them access to capital, to turn them into rock stars—had already landed in India. But the board made a compelling case, arguing that if Endeavor was serious about growth markets, we couldn’t ignore one of the biggest in the world—not to mention one in which many of our own entrepreneurs wished to expand.

Once I was on the ground, my resistance softened further. I had encouraging meetings with top business leaders in Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore. Sure, India had a vibrant community of entrepreneurs, they told me, but more local innovators were needed. Within months, Endeavor had secured $1.5 million in committed funds—half the capital required to launch local operations—and three (out of the needed six) local business leaders were ready to join the board. At our annual gala, I announced the news: Endeavor India had arrived!

But so had everyone else, I soon realized. Silicon Valley’s premier VC firms were already active in India. The media were full of homegrown entrepreneurial success stories like Wipro and Infosys. Although we were off to a successful start, I feared the seeds of failure were already planted.

Still, I was reluctant to give up. I had faced this situation before. A decade earlier, Endeavor’s inaugural office, in Chile, had been struggling because of lackluster buy-in from the local business community. I decided to shut down the office. Six months later we reopened, having received calls from many business leaders there expressing their desire to work with us. Endeavor Chile swiftly became one of our top offices, led by an all-star board.

Was India another Chile, I wondered, needing only time to flourish? The answer was no. We had trouble recruiting additional local board members. Also, people were asking Endeavor to relax its “high impact” standards by focusing outside the capital cities, on the base of the pyramid. I feared mission drift. I needed to face reality: Failure was an option.

I soon announced that we would close Endeavor India.

As the leader of a fast-growing organization, I know the importance of setting an ambitious course of action—and stubbornly following it. I believe passion is a powerful guide. But the Law of India, to me, is: You can’t always will an outcome. You can’t always win. You just need to fail smart.

I often think of that plane ride to Delhi and of how important that experience has become to my understanding of entrepreneurship. One of my favorite business mantras is “Go big, or go home.” We talk a lot in business—and at Endeavor—about the first half of that equation, “Go big.”

But we need to spend a lot more time on the second half, “Go home.” Sometimes knowing when to shut down a failed initiative is as vital as knowing when to start one. Sometimes embracing failure is as important as toasting success.

This is a very difficult decision for entrepreneurs. Persistence is a critical success factor - but persistence in the pursuit of a failing objective is a drain on precious time and resources. The magic happens at that margin - between doubling down and going home. When do you decide it's time to "Go Home" on a new venture?

Monday, March 12, 2012

Game Developers Conference hosts a "Failure Workshop"

This news piece by Gamasutra, a gaming industry site, got my attention:

For the second year at GDC [the Game Developers Conference], game developers got together not to talk about their best practices or their successes, but instead about their failures....

Ron Carmel of World of Goo house 2D Boy hosted the panel, and opened by stressing the importance of sharing experiences of failure. If people don't talk about and share their failures, "We're missing out on 90 percent of our learning opportunities," Carmel said.

He talked about dispelling the "success myth," explaining that "the successes that you see usually come after a long string of failure."

Carmel is right. You don't read about the failures that predate a big hit. Instead, writers mine that success story for some formula they can sell to their readers about how to replicate this success. The game designers at this session know this isn't how it's done.

And we shouldn't be surprised that game designers are not afraid to fail and to learn from failure. Other posts on this site have reinforced that iterative learning is natural to gamers, as it should be to those who design games as well.

Gamasutra captured some great mistake stories from the session. We'll feature those in upcoming posts.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Daryl Morey of the Houston Rockets, on his mistake in waiving Jeremy Lin

On Bill Simmons' BS Report podcast, Daryl Morey, the General Manager of the Houston Rockets, discussed his team releasing Jeremy Lin before Lin joined the New York Knicks and became 2012's breakout basketball star.

Morey, in this clip, describes the difference between what he calls "Type I" error - his error of commission - and "Type II" error. Morey is guilty of a Type I error - he waived Lin when he should have kept the guard on the roster. Besides the Knicks and the Golden State Warriors (the team that drafted him), the other teams committed a "Type II" error - they never gave Lin a chance in the first place, despite each having had the opportunity to do so.

This is important. The Rockets and Morey got criticism for letting Lin get away. The other teams largely escaped criticism because they didn't even give him a chance. Who's the better decisionmaker here? Morey or his passive rivals?

Listen to the audio clip here: Daryl Morey of the Houston Rockets on Type 1 Error (1:38) [There is an embedded audio player you can access at the bottom of the page.]

Here's a precise statistical definition of Type I and Type II error. What Morey describes isn't exactly this, but I get his point.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Why journal your mistakes?

I am reading a Harvard Business School working paper, entitled "Learning From My Success and From Others' Failure: Evidence from Minimally-Invasive Cardiac Surgery." The key finding is right there in the title. We learn better from others' mistakes than from our own. This is largely due to the "self-attribution bias" that behavioral economists like Daniel Kahneman discovered - in our limited perspective, we ascribe our successes to our abilities and efforts, while we blame failures on external circumstances. 

This means we by nature carry a large blind spot around with us--it's hard, and unnatural, to reflect on and scrutinize our own actions to look for areas of improvement. In fact, it can make us feel bad about ourselves - not a good situation for learning, no?

Here's where journaling comes in. When something goes awry, all you need to do is write it down. Classify it as a Mistake and move on. Then, weeks later, after the intensity and emotions of the moment have dissipated, you look back at it, think about it. What happened? Think about your role - recognize that mistakes and failures are owned by groups, but self-improvement is your task alone. (This is having a sense of agency.) What could you have done differently that could have affected the outcome? Next time your face a similar circumstance, how will you handle it?

Documenting and reflecting on mistakes isn't easy. It's a discipline that needs to be learned. But think about this: according to the Harvard paper, most people don't learn well from their own mistakes. If you can be one of the few that do, it puts you at a tremendous advantage. That advantage will create opportunities, and allow you to capitalize on them.

If you'd like to try a free journaling app that was created to aid in this process, sign up here.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Post Mortem, even if you win

[This post first appeared in the Rocket Matter blog.]

I's customary, when you are in a competitive bidding process, to hold a post-mortem or an "after-action review" if you've lost. And this makes sense: lessons from failure make a deep imprint. Losing takes a psychological toll and causes us to seek not to repeat it. So the loss review is a natural outgrowth of this feeling – let’s look back on what we did that contributed to the loss and learn from it.

What happens when you win? Here’s what I’ve seen after winning a deal:
  •       you bang a gong
  •       you have a party
  •       you talk about how smart and clever you were

Celebrating wins is essential and motivating, and you should definitely do that. But when the champagne bottles are empty and the euphoria has died down a bit, think for a minute. Did you do everything perfectly? 

“Of course not,” you say. “There are things to learn from every competition, win or lose.” And if you reflect on your win, you’ll realize that the victory was at least partially due to circumstances outside your own actions – the mistakes of your opponents, a sympathetic judge, a convenient venue, etc. You may in fact have won in spite of yourself.

If you only look back at the losses, you are discarding massive opportunities to learn.

Perhaps it’s time to start conducting win reviews. Here’s how:
  1. A few weeks after the result is known, ask each person involved in the case to think about the entire process, from start to finish. Ask them to look for surprises. When were you surprised during the time we were working on the case? What happened? What would you do differently next time?
  2. Gather everyone together in a meeting (2 hours should be plenty of time). Appoint someone who was not involved in the case to moderate the session. Record it if possible.
  3. Acknowledge the victory and spend 10 minutes reliving the triumph. Then move into learning mode. 
  4. Set the stage by discussing how much of winning and losing are events outside of your control. “You know, we had a few breaks in this case. If this or that had happened differently, we might have lost. Now, let’s think about what we did that next time we could do better and give ourselves an even better chance to win.”
  5.  Ask each attendee to briefly describe one of their “surprises.” Only that person speaks; this is not a debate, or a competition. Go around the table a few times until you have a list of 10 or more things you’d do differently. [Make sure to listen carefully to the quiet folks; they will have great ideas that you hadn’t considered before.]
  6. Use a voting method to select the top 3-5 items.
  7. Spend 30 minutes discussing each of the top items from the vantage point of, “The next time we face this situation, what do we want to do instead?”
  8. Document those findings and share with the entire company. 
It may be difficult to find the time to do a win review. Even harder is gathering the will to reflect on the past and learn from it. But if you want to be better than your opponents, you will make it happen.

In a New York Times interview, Katherine Hays, CEO of software company GenArts, provided the best reason why:

I learned as an athlete — I rowed for four years in college — that you have to be present in the moment, and you can’t be distracted by something you just did that was really good, or by the fact that you’re a little bit behind in a race. You can’t focus on what’s just happened because you can’t change it. That’s not to say we shouldn’t pause and congratulate ourselves, but you have to balance that with maintaining focus on what the next steps are. You learn as an athlete to say: “Great, we won that race, but what are the things we could have done better? Because we have a race next week.”
You too will have a “race next week.” How will you prepare? Let us know in the comments.