Guest column

Paul Iske

Extraordinary professor and CFO (Chief Failure Officer)

Daring to learn from failures

"For many years, I have been an enthusiastic ambassador for the Limburg community, in particular for the impressive transformation that is taking place within the knowledge economy. I am writing this column in Seoul, where people are eager to learn more about Brightlands’ widely admired open innovation ecosystem. And that admiration is justified; we have accomplished a great deal in recent years. Pioneering research is being conducted in the various fields of materials, health, smart services, food and logistics, and a great deal of new entrepreneurship and employment has been created. A fine example of what I call ‘Combinatorial Innovation’: bringing parties with different knowledge and ambition together, creating unique new opportunities.


I'm also here, in South Korea, to spread the message of the ‘Institute of Brilliant Failures'. We have the (human) right to experiment, to fail (brilliantly) and to learn. In a country such as South Korea, this is no trivial message; in the country's culture, elements such as hierarchy, risk-avoidance and the collective interest (and opinion) play a major role. It's not always easy to start something and see where it leads, and even more difficult to admit that something did not work out. On the other hand, South Korean society sets great store by working for a better future, which is why it is important to learn as much as possible and to use that knowledge to do better afterward. And we learn most when things don't go according to expectations, for example when things fail. The message of the Institute of Brilliant Failures is also popular here, which is why the Sogang University in Seoul has expressed the desire to collaborate, to create a better understanding and acceptance of failures in South Korea.

But when I tell success stories about the modern Limburg knowledge economy, I sometimes wonder: are we sufficiently open to the things that have not gone according to plan; are we able and willing to learn from them? Do we tell each other the whole story? I sometimes compare it to the theory of dark matter: to explain some properties of the universe, a theory has been drawn up that states that dark matter and energy fill more than 95 percent of the universe. The matter and energy are dark because there is no electromagnetic interaction (light). In line with this analogy, I estimate that over 90 percent of our experiences is not or hardly ever shared (they are dark), simply because they lack a spectacular, appealing outcome or success. Yes, of course I'm interested in projects that show good progress, but we also have to appreciate all the people and organizations that are applying a lot of energy and knowledge to realize beautiful things, but who have not (yet) succeeded in doing so. Their commitment and knowledge are also valuable, and sometimes their learning experiences form the basis for success at a different time or place.
This is why I want to suggest awarding an annual ‘Brightlands Brilliant Failure Award’ to the person who has realized the most appealing and most valuable brilliant failure, and who is willing to share their lessons with us all, enabling the people in Limburg to be proud of these experiences, and benefit from them!

Nederlands versie: gastcolumn



Paul Iske (1961) is extraordinary professor of Open Innovation and Business Venturing at Maastricht University's School of Business and Economics. 


He is also CFO (Chief Failure Officer) of the Institute for Brilliant Failures, intending to build an understanding of the importance of experimenting and learning in a changing and complex world. He gives lectures for many organizations and industries and has a biweekly short radio show on the Dutch BNR network in which he focuses on a recent failure.  


After graduating in theoretical physics (1989), Paul worked at Shell for almost a decade, researching complex systems and knowledge management. At Shell, he developed the knowledge system MASTER (MApping SysTem for ExpeRtise), very similar to the current LinkedIn. His attempt to market this system failed (a Brilliant Failure).


After this, he started working at ABN AMRO, where he was Chief Dialogues Officer, eventually developing the future center (Dialogues House); as Head of Innovation, Iske became the founder and manager of the bank's Incubator, a position he held for approximately ten years.