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Designers should not blindly emulate winners.

HENRY PETROSKI - Competing ship owners most likely would have wanted to emulate the Titanic’s success, but they also would have wanted to make what they believed to be improvements.When the five living U.S. Presidents — past, present, and soon to be — stood before the press in the Oval Office last January, there was an emphasis on success. President George W. Bush, speaking also for his predecessors, said they would be sharing their experiences with then President-elect Barack Obama, and they all wanted him to succeed. Obama, who certainly wants to succeed, said he wanted to learn from their successes.

Unfortunately, there are definite limitations and potential dangers in learning from successes — unless one wants simply to replicate them. Obama, who ran his campaign on the promise of change, had already indicated that he wished to set a new course for the ship of state he now captains.

But steering any ship through troubled waters can be a risky matter. One can succeed by following established routes, but even past successes may have depended upon luck, as well as upon skill. Always, it is necessary to keep an eye out for trouble.

In 1912, the innovatively designed ship Titanic was heralded as an “unsinkable” success even before she was launched. As we all know, she sank on her maiden crossing. But let’s engage in a thought experiment. Let’s assume that the Titanic did not have the bad luck of being at the same place at the same time as a giant iceberg in the north Atlantic. Had the ship not had her unfortunate encounter, she would have reached New York safely and the success of her design would have been “proven.”

Competing ship owners most likely would have wanted to emulate the Titanic’s success, but they also would have wanted to make what they believed to be improvements. Larger, faster, and more opulent ocean liners would have been designed. To make them more competitive economically, the newer ships would be made with thinner hulls and fewer lifeboats. After all, they were based on the unsinkable Titanic.

But, as we know from its failure, the Titanic could not withstand a collision with an iceberg — a fatal flaw in its design. All ships based on the supposedly successful Titanic design would have had that same latent flaw. In fact, because of the overconfidence in her success, the use of thinner steel in the hulls would have made the derivative ships even more vulnerable. Chances are, one of these ships eventually would have had the bad luck of encountering an iceberg. Only then would the folly of thinner hulls and fewer lifeboats have become evident.

Successful change comes not from simply emulating success but from anticipating failure. Thus, we should want to learn not only from the successes of the past but also from the failures. It is those that will provide the wisdom to foresee when a newly proposed plan or policy is likely to go awry. An overemphasis on past successes is a sure blueprint for being blindsided by future failures.

The recent financial crisis provides another cogent example. Prolonged appreciation in the housing market promoted a feeling that real estate could and would appreciate indefinitely. At the same time, past (successful) mortgage practices were stretched to encourage home purchases beyond buyers’ means. The market for risky financial instruments depended on never-ending favorable real estate and economic conditions. But, of course, everything has its ups and downs. The financial crisis might have been more widely foreseen had there not been such a myopic focus on success.

Past success may be inspirational and encouraging, but it is not by itself a reliable indicator of or guide to future success. The most efficacious changes in any system are informed not only by successes but also by failures.

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. He is the author of Success Through Failure and other books on engineering and design.




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