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Learning from Apple to Embrace “Failure”

Apple recently announced not only that it had been working on a secret project for the last 10 years – Project Titan, focused on creating an eclectic car – but that it was canceling this project in order to shift gears toward AI.

They spent 10 years (and over $10 billion) on a project that didn’t go anywhere only to totally scrap it and start over with something else entirely different.

Some might consider this a failure. And it wouldn’t be Apple’s first. In fact, a quick Google search turns up numerous examples of their “failures,” including:

  • In 1981, it discontinued its Apple III computer after only a year on the market (the first of many short-lived products including Pippin and Apple TV).

  • In 2019, it canceled its AirPower wireless charger before it was released.

  • And in 2024, it ended Project Titan before we even knew anything about it. 

And, none of it has kept them from moving forward and doing what they do best – in fact, it’s all part of their process.

Author James Clear explains, "If you want to avoid criticism, create less. If you want to avoid irrelevance, create more."

Has Apple endured its share of criticism? Yes. Would anyone consider it to be a failure? With a current value of $2.71 trillion, it’s doubtful. Apple is a company committed to avoiding irrelevance despite the criticism. 

In my initial conversations with potential clients, they all also want to avoid irrelevance…and there is often a lot of fear of failure. 

They know artificial intelligence is a thing that they can’t hide from, but they are worried about what introducing it into their schools could mean. What if they move too quickly? What if they miss something? What if they let it do more damage than good?

They know a particular project will ultimately benefit them, but there is a lot riding on it, and they are concerned about what could go wrong. What if they don’t have the right expertise? What if the results aren’t what they’d envisioned? What if they can’t actually do the thing?

They know rethinking how and what they are doing in a particular area will bring them closer to the excellence they seek, and they are so comfortable with where they are now. What if something unanticipated happens? What if people get upset? What if the result is worse than the present? 

All very valid concerns. All completely possible. All related to a fear of failure.

And, in some ways, isn’t there a fear of failure either way?

If you don’t introduce AI into your school and become obsolete – you become irrelevant.

If you don’t take on the project and don’t get the benefits – you become irrelevant.

If you are considered mediocre in a competitive world – you become irrelevant.

It might be slower and more predictable, and it’s still failure. 

If you want to “avoid irrelevance” and “create more,” you do risk criticism and failure. And there are a few things you can do to soften it just a bit:

Plan for failure.

Do we want to fail? No. Is it always a possibility when trying something new (or even not new)? Yes. As Clear says, “Failure should not be desired, but it should be planned for.”

A few things to try:

  • Build in regular check-ins with your team to assess progress and pivot, if needed.

  • Value process and learnings over specific outcomes, if possible

  • Make sure you have various iterations of the plan to account for different possibilities and possible places of “failure.”

Mitigate risk of failure.

Do your research. Make your plans (A, B,...and Z). Consider potential obstacles and setbacks. Ensure you have the right people on the team. Communicate effectively. And iterate. 

A few things to try:

  • Hire an expert in the area to help guide you.

  • Seek additional funding, resources, and collaborators in order to ensure you have what you need.

  • Try a small scale beta test before launching a full initiative. 

Create a culture where failure isn’t final. 

There are a lot of cheesy sayings around this including “It’s only failure if you don’t learn” or “There is no failure, only unfinished success” or “Failure is a detour, not a dead end street.” Absolutely cheesy. And absolutely true. And all of this goes to culture and mindset around failure, which is the foundation for everything else. 

A few things to try:

  • Model keeping a failure list or resume and sharing out publicly with your staff.

  • Develop and institute a learning protocol to use after a “failure”

  • Be very intentional with the language you use about trying new things and reflecting on the process

Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, said, “Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly, and get on with improving your other innovations."

Jobs’s mindset around failure had significant impact on the culture of Apple, its push to always be innovating, and the success it experiences today.

What is your mindset around failure?

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