For the past two years, I have researched and written a book on Silicon Valley classrooms, schools, and districts that are “best cases” of technology integration. I published over a dozen posts on the blog of classroom observations I made in Silicon Valley schools during 2016.
I am in the last phase of wrapping up this project. Next week I will send in the page proofs that the publisher sent me to find typos and other errors. The book will come out next spring. The title is: The Flight of the Butterfly or the Path of a Bullet: Using Technology to Transform Teaching and Learning.
Doing the research and writing this book I found very satisfying. Now, what’s next?
For the past few months that I have gone over the copy-edited manuscript that the publisher sent and now these page proofs, I have begun searching for a question that puzzles me and for which I have no ready answer. This is not an easy process. Many false starts and diversions. It is a process I have gone through many times. I have learned to trust the muddling, zig-zag path that I follow. I believe that some question will emerge and get its hooks into me. So for the next few posts I will try out a possible project to see if has “legs,” as some say. Comments are welcomed
There can be no success in the absence of failure
Henri Varenne and Ray McDermott, 1999
We always learn more from failure than success. Success teaches us nothing.
Henry Marsh, 2017
Success and failure are entwined like a DNA helix. You can’t have one without the other. Yet determining what is success and failure in schooling the young, sustaining businesses, waging war, and providing hospital health care is both uncertain and even contradictory. There is a constant thread that ties success to failure in the helix and that is organizational performance in achieving its goals. Yet even defining high- and low- performance in an organization can be dodgy. Consider the opening and closing of businesses.
After five years, about half of all new businesses have and shut their doors. For companies that have survived longer than five years, even decades, closures still occur. In the past decade retailers such as Borders book stores, The Limited clothing, Thom McAn shoes, Blockbusters video, Circuit City electronics, and A & P groceries have gone belly up.
Bankruptcies and closure for new and old firms means failure; companies lacked the cash to continue. Those whose revenues exceeded expenditures year after year survived. And survival means success. Correct? Not quite.
A surprising percentage of those closures made money and still closed their doors. They met the performance standard by which businesses are judged—net annual profit–and still shut down. For example, many small retailers who want to retire or try something else close by selling their profitable business to someone else. Other companies close by getting bought out or merging with a larger firm.
And even other successful businesses, such as restaurants that have served customers for over a decade (60 percent of new restaurants shutter their windows in the first three years) decided to sell their restaurant or simply close down.
Also consider that some U.S. companies that have been by most metrics successful (Best Buy, Walmart, McDonalds, and Starbucks) have failed to make a dent in other countries even closing stores they had opened.
And there is the puzzling case that some businesses fail to make a profit and are considered successful. Consider those high-tech businesses such as Amazon that initially failed to bring in sufficient sales to keep the company financially afloat—the over-riding goal of a new company—yet venture capitalists and eager investors plowed cash into these profit-poor companies in their early years before they became the behemoth businesses they are now. No profit yet successful?
THE MILITARY IN WAGING WAR
Winning wars—World War II (1941-1945)—and losing wars—Vietnam (1955-1975) are based upon armed forces’ performance in achieving its mission. In World War II, for the U.S. in concert with its allies, the mission (or over-riding goal) was securing unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany, Japan, and Italy. That military mission was achieved by the end of 1945. Yet the U.S. armed forces lost many bloody battles in North Africa, Europe, and the Pacific along the way. Losing battles but winning a war?
In Vietnam, the U.S. government’s mission changed over the two decades from supporting the French in holding its colony and preventing a Communist takeover of the country to supporting a new state of South Vietnam (after the French exited) and helping that nation repel North Vietnam’s army and supporters within South Vietnam, the Viet Cong. Beginning under President John Kennedy, U.S. military advisers were sent to aid the South Vietnamese (for history of war, see here, here, and here)
U.S. advisers were insufficient to stop the infiltration of North Vietnamese army and indigenous insurgents who were helped by Chinese and Soviet arms and money so President Lyndon Johnson eventually sent a half-million U.S. soldiers into the country to fight both the Viet Cong and the People’s Army of North Vietnam.
All of this to stop the Communist North from taking over South Vietnam. Why? The belief was that, like falling dominoes. Were South Vietnam to fall, Laos, Cambodia, and Burma would turn Communist as well and would endanger U.S. interests in Asia.
Through the administrations of John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, the public was told repeatedly that the U.S was winning the war and achieving its goal of halting the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia, even as U.S. officials shifted from helping the French to protecting South Vietnam from North Vietnam through bombings of Hanoi to starting peace talks in 1969 with the North. Those peace talks led to the U.S. beginning to withdraw its forces in 1973 and finally leaving in 1975. Within a few years, the North had swept through the South consolidating the nation into one Vietnam. Declarations of “success” from U.S. Presidents ended in failure.
Fifteen years later Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. U.S. President George H.W. Bush, to protect the free passage of oil from the Gulf, ordered armed forces to free Kuwait from Iraqi control. The Persian Gulf War of 1991 swiftly liberated Kuwait from Iraqi forces which retreated back to Baghdad. The brief war reduced the influence of Saddam Hussein in the region. The mission was accomplished. This short, limited war had few U.S. casualties and was a clear-cut “success” for the military following the failure of the previous war in Vietnam.
Just over a decade later President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq. The mission driving the invasion in 2003 was to get rid of “weapons of mass destruction” held by Saddam Hussein. No such weapons were ever found.
The mission was successful militarily, however, in routing the Iraqi army, taking Baghdad, and deposing Saddam Hussein. However, it was a diplomatic failure in that no “weapons of mass destruction” were found and the subsequent occupation of the country and Sunni insurgency against the elected Shiite government surprised both military and diplomatic planners.
A protracted civil war between the elected Shiite government and the Sunni minority led to another change in mission under Presidents Bush and Obama by initially increasing the numbers of troops sent to the country. Over the course of the invasion and occupation, U.S. troops won key battles in cities controlled by insurgents yet diplomatic efforts to create an independent, democratically elected, and inclusive government strong enough to defend itself against Kurdish and Sunni insurgents ultimately failed.
President Bush began withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2008 and President Barak Obama presided over the final exit except for advisers to assist Iraqi forces, in 2010.
As one retired U.S. Colonel put the military effort in Iraq in these years: “We have not won it. We are not winning it. Simply trying harder is unlikely to produce a different outcome.”
The invasion of Iraq and a near decade long occupation can hardly be considered a “success” even with the destruction of the Iraqi army and ousting of Hussein especially in light of the strong influence Iran subsequently gained in the Iraqi government and persistent turbulence—the growth of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)–in the Middle East, specifically the civil war in Syria and its triggering of hundreds of thousands of refugees into Europe. That successful U.S. military intervention in 2003 morphed into a diplomatic and political failure.
So winning many battles in Vietnam and Iraq yet failing on diplomatic and political fronts resulted in the U.S. losing these limited wars, except for liberating Kuwait in 1991.
Part 2 will look at “success” and “failure” and its idiosyncrasies in providing health care in hospitals and schooling.