Book Review: Success Through Failure

Success Through Failure
By Henry Petroski
Princeton University Press, 240 pages, $22.95
ISBN 0691122253

The hot topic among movers and shakers today is failure. The educational value of failure used to be the fodder of motivational speakers with their “lemons into lemonade” clichÃ?©s. Now, the concept of failure as opportunity is at the agenda forefront of engineers, builders, scientists, researchers and politicians.

Civil engineer and historian Henry Petroski believes that failure is an essential factor in a larger equation when he states, “Frustration and disappointment associated with the use of a tool or the performance of a system puts a challenge on the table: Improve the thing.” Petroski’s book, Success Through Failure, is an exploration of the interplay between success and failure in design with particular emphasis placed upon “the important role played by reaction to and anticipation of failure in achieving success.” It is, in Petroski’s view, a symbiotic relationship. Sort of a failure/success continuum.

This concept takes on a certain philosophical air, as when Petroski writes, “Success and failure in design are intertwined. Though a focus on failure can lead to success, too great a reliance on successful precedents can lead to failure. Success is not simply the absence of failure; it also masks potential modes of failure. Emulating success may be efficacious in the short term, but such behavior invariably and surprisingly leads to failure itself.”

Such ruminations notwithstanding, Success Through Failure is not a “touchy feely” book. It is not to be found among the Self Help shelves. It is decidedly grounded in the Nonfiction Engineering section. Petroski is a Duke University professor who presented the BBC TV documentary “To Engineer Is Human” and who wrote a book on the design history of the pencil. He is a leading member of the corps of researchers who pump life into micro-topics, such as Mark Kurlansky who authored the history of salt and Robert Friedel who explored the evolution of the zipper.

In Success Through Failure, Petroski opens and closes the aperture of his concentration to include massive and minute examples alike in the pursuit of his argument. For instance, a failure: The stainless steel cladding of architecht Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles reflected sun into the apartments of neighbors, blinding the tenants and raising their indoor temperatures by as much as 15 degrees. Success: Sandblast the offending cladding. Failure: Prior to the 1980s, college basketball was often a low scoring, boring spectator sport because there was no rule limiting the time a team could control the ball with endless passing among themselves. Success: Introduction of the shot clock. Failure: The post-Saddam Iraqi flag is designed with light blue horizontal bars symbolizing the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, but it resembles the flag of Israel. The designer said he wasn’t even thinking about Israel. Quite plausable. Success: Darken the blue.

Some of the lessons that illustrate Petroski’s thesis best come from our space program. “By the late 1990s,” he writes, “with Challenger a fading memory, the mantra of ‘faster, better, cheaper’ was characterizing NASA’s culture (though astute observers had often added ‘pick two,’ to emphasize that engineering and design always involve trade-offs)âÂ?¦ NASA continued to forge ahead with confidence, if not swagger.” With the destruction of Columbia in 2003 “it was once again clear that the space agency was subject to the same failing memory as aging individuals. Furthermore, just as some distinguished bridge builders have been guilty of hubris, so were NASA teams. Events leading up to the disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia on reentering the atmosphere constitute another classic example of success masking failure.” Petroski makes the point that even though pieces of insulating foam had broken off the external fuel tank on every launch, the shuttle managers treated the debris not as evidence of material failure, but rather as proof that the shuttle could survive impacts beyond its design specifications. “A generation of NASA managers had turned engineering on its head, viewing evidence of failure as signs of success” (quoting the Los Angeles Times).

Petroski asserts that the success of complex systems is merely a masking of its proximity to failure. “Imagine that the Titanic had not struck the iceberg on her maiden voyage. The example of that ‘unsinkable’ ship would have emboldened success-based shipbuilders to model more and more and larger and larger ocean liners after her. Eventually, albeit by chance, the Titanic or one of those derivative vessels would likely have encountered an iceberg – with obvious consequences. Thus, the failure of the Titanic contributed much more to the design of safe ocean liners than would have her success. That is the paradox of engineering and design.” Just when it seems that Petroski is the ultimate pessimist, he casts his vision into Improve-the-thing possibilities. He believes, “There are two approaches to any engineering or design problem: success-based and failure-based. Paradoxically, the latter is always far more likely to succeed.”

Success Through Failure accepts that mistakes cannot, and perhaps should not be eliminated. Its message is that the best to be hoped for was expressed by Yogi Berra, who said, “I don’t want to make the wrong mistake.”

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