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James Dyson.
James Dyson.

LEADERSHIP LAB

Yes, it’s OK it took me 5,127 attempts to make a bagless vacuum Add to ...

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

Failure is such a taboo word. No one wants to be labelled a failure. No one wants to admit to it. And I just can’t understand why.

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As an engineer, I deal with failure almost every day. We’re in the lab, building, creating and prototyping and when it’s time to test, it often doesn’t work. An initial idea takes hundreds – or even thousands – of prototypes, all which are considered failures, but eventually we get to that final moment: Success.

Failure is just part of the process. It took me 15 years and 5,127 attempts to develop the first bagless cyclonic vacuum. And I won’t lie, it was frustrating, aggravating – but it was also invigorating, exciting. What matters about failure is that you learn from it.

Not only do people cringe at the thought of failing, but we’re also an impatient bunch. We want success fast; the quick buck, the overnight sensation, the teenage billionaire. And, for the highest return on investment.

Some lucky people make it that fast, making headlines while they’re at it. But they’re a rare bunch. Designing something that works well requires careful thought and precise measures, then relentless testing and prototyping. It takes time. Perhaps the biggest thing that holds invention back might be our impatience.

We encourage our design engineers to think creatively and embrace problem-solving. If it doesn’t work, take a step back, remove something, toggle with something else, and try again. Creativity doesn’t come from instructions, but the guts to look at something in a different way and question it.

A prime example of gutsy curiosity is Canadian engineer Joseph-Armand Bombardier. Like many engineers, Bombardier took great pleasure in disassembling and reassembling things, from toys to motors from the time he was a young boy. He dreamed up and invented an impressive number of specialized vehicles throughout his life for over-snow or all-terrain travel. And you better believe he didn’t get it right on his first shot. My personal favourite is the Bombardier 1960 Ski-Doo Snowmobile – which I’m proud to say, sits in the reception area of our Canadian base in Toronto.

If you visit any of our offices, but particularly our headquarters in Malmesbury, England, you’ll notice young people buzzing around everywhere. We hire inexperienced people, often straight out of university. Why? Because untried minds bring energy and expertise in places where, let’s be frank, someone with my number of miles on the clock might not have.

It’s important to teach these people – those who will invent new and exciting technologies that will solve our most complicated problems – that if you fail once, you’re one step closer to success. Our foundation encourages students to use a hands-on approach, enabling them to turn ideas into solutions for real problems. The foundation’s annual competition, the James Dyson Award, invites students from 18 countries to submit a design that solves a problem. Hundreds of students enter each year. And as part of the judging criteria, we require them to write in detail about the progression from concept to final design and prototype. Every year, it’s the build-test-re-build story that wins; they are simply better ideas and better products.

Developing new technology is a gruelling process. And plenty of it never sees the light of day. Walk down the aisles of the Dyson prototype archive; there are many ‘failures.’ Take the Dyson Fuel cell – for three years, 10 engineers worked to adapt a Dyson digital motor so it could sit at the heart of a fuel cell. What resulted was a compact, lightweight and highly efficient digital motor, the V4HF digital motor, which resulted in a 20-per-cent increase in power density and improved efficiency. Whilst this technology hasn’t yet found its perfect application, our findings were substantial and taught us much about digital motors – knowledge we are applying to our small, lightweight cordless vacuums.

So you see, I think the word “failure” should be re-evaluated. It should be a term that is encouraged, accepted, even sought after. Because it’s failure that drives invention forward.

James Dyson is founder and chief engineer at Dyson (@Dyson) where thousands of engineers are inventing new technology that stretches out over 25 years globally.

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