Solyndra's Failure and the Importance of Intelligent Risks

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The Solyndra scandal shows how unstable the tech industry can be, but in some cases failure is better than not trying 

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The New York Times' Dr. Lawrence K. Altman recalls how a comically unsuccessful measles vaccination campaign in in West Africa in the 1960s, Murphy's Law in the tropics, led to one of the greatest smallpox eradication programs of the era:

With bureaucratic jockeying between the C.D.C. and U.S.A.I.D., [Dr. Altman's boss] Dr [D.A.}. Henderson and other officials added smallpox vaccine to the measles program. (Measles was later dropped.) The resulting smallpox campaign in West Africa, described by Dr. William H. Foege in his new book "House on Fire: The Fight to Eradicate Smallpox" (University of California Press), was so successful that it became the World Health Organization program through which Dr. Henderson, Dr. Foege and thousands of others eradicated smallpox from the world. Medicine might never have achieved its greatest triumph if small errors had not been made in the measles immunization program.

That's another example of the Hiding Hand principle I mentioned a few days ago. If Dr. Henderson and the C.D.C. had understood the obstacles to the measles program, they might not have undertaken it in the first place, and might never have been able to mount a comparable smallpox vaccination program until years later. The sociologist Charles Tilly coined a related phrase for history's strange linkages, the Invisible Elbow.

On the same day, the Wall Street Journal reported on programs at Procter & Gamble and other companies to reward employees who take intelligent risks, even when they fail. Moving on from failure is also one of the great elements of the Silicon Valley creed. It's alive and well among Stanford's star computer science majors, according to New York Magazine:

"Successful people aren't any different from you and me," [senior Feross Aboukhadijeh] continues. "They're not inherently more brilliant. The difference is they had the wisdom to get their hands dirty and be part of the game instead of just observing it."

Failure is an option - -and it's not even a bad one. "I'm not as afraid of uncertainty," says Feross. "I don't think Mark Zuckerberg knew what he was doing when he built Facebook."

People like Zuckerberg and Bill Gates and Steve Jobs surrendered to the process and changed the world before they really knew what they were doing. It can happen. A lot of kids in Silicon Valley are counting on it.

The problem is that no matter what super-geeks, medical journalists, inspirational speakers, and forward-thinking corporate people might say, reality on the ground for the great majority of people probably is still making your numbers and not standing out for downsizing. I'm sure the programs cited by the Journal are not just window-dressing. But perhaps failure tolerance is another dimension of the emerging global two-tier society, like in-house massages and organic cafeterias. A generation or two ago such policies might be more hit-or-miss. Today, with significant layoffs even in formerly privileged fields like biomedical research and finance, a small number of organizations take a liberal attitude to risk. And a few professionals, like Stanford's emerging programming stars, have room to maneuver. But perhaps these upbeat cases mask even harsher treatment of unsuccessful risk taking elsewhere.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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