First Mini-biz: The success of failure

Mini-Biz’s David Lank believes that mistakes are “the most important part of learning.”
Mini-Biz’s David Lank believes that mistakes are “the most important part of learning.”

By Chris Chipello

“If you don’t fail,” Prof. David Lank told his Mini-Biz 2008 audience, “you have no chance of succeeding.”

Kicking off McGill’s popular series of public lectures on business on Sept. 16, Lank ticked off a litany of “successful mistakes” that have helped shape history.

Columbus, looking for spices in the Far East, stumbled across North America. A search for gold in 1675 accidentally yielded phosphorus. Half a century after its discovery in 1800, nitrous oxide was transformed from “laughing gas” into an anaesthetic. A “smoke helmet” patented in 1823 was poorly conceived for firefighters, but panned out nicely as a piece of diving gear. The short-lived but technologically advanced Studebaker had a significant impact on the auto industry. The Concorde was never a money-maker; yet as the first supersonic passenger airplane, it sparked vast research activity. More recently, the dot-com bubble left behind a slew of bankruptcies, but helped spawn an array of technologies that are now taken for granted.

While a botched mid-term exam at university can drag down your academic record for years to come, mistakes are “the most important part of learning” in business, Lank told his audience at the Desautels Faculty of Management.

If entrepreneurs don’t make choices, their dreams and aspirations remain little more than fantasies, said Lank, director emeritus of the Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurial Studies at the Desautels Faculty of Management. Lank, who founded Helix Investments 40 years ago, has been personally involved in the venture-capital funding of scores of companies. He’s also found time to write 47 books on subjects ranging from wildlife art to gourmet food.

Canadians too often shrink from the process of innovation, Lank suggested. Instead of being creative, he said, “we place our trust in solutions proposed by the same people who caused the problems in the first place.”

While confronting options can be stressful, it becomes easier as experience and self-confidence grow, he said. Leaders must weigh options; yet at some point they have to make a decision, or the options will inevitably shrink until only one remains.

For Canadians to put behind them the old collective stereotype of “hewers of wood and drawers of water,” Lank concluded, they must embrace mistakes in the spirit of entrepreneurs.

In the next Mini-Biz session, on Sept. 23, Prof. Karl Moore will speak about “Postmodern Leadership: How to Win in Today’s Workplace.” Based on his interviews with more than 40 CEOs and over 200 “Millennials,” Professor Moore will discuss how the Y and Millennial generations have been brought up, and how this affects the way we manage, work with and lead these critical employees.

Other topics for this year’s series include “Earth: Living in a Branded World,” and “Creative Accounting: Interpreting Financial Statements in a Post-Enron World.” Advance registration and payment is recommended.

Mini-Biz 2008; Sept. 16-Oct. 28; 6 p.m refreshments; 6:30 p.m..-8 p.m lectures. Desautels Faculty of Management;1001 Sherbrooke St. West; ground floor lecture hall, room 151. Cost $60 for students and seniors, $100 regular admission. Info: or call 514-398-1054