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Foundation Spotlight: On Intelligent Fast Failure and Moon Shots

Milton D. Hakel

Three decades ago I had a colleague in Mechanical Engineering named Jack Matson.  Jack taught a class popularly known as Failure 101.  It was a required introductory course, and the core assignment for each small group of students was to (a) create some “thing,” for example, a mechanical gizmo, (b) run it until it failed, and (c) write up a full analysis of the failure.  Students whose thing did not fail received Fs—the group that made and marketed fudge never succeeded at failing, so they got Fs.

Jack’s point was that sooner or later, everything fails.  His mantra: Always prefer intelligent, fast failure, to what is otherwise inevitable: slow, stupid failure.

Recently I watched a TED Talk by Astro Teller about the unexpected benefit of celebrating failure.  Dr. Teller oversees X, Alphabet’s “moonshot factory” for audacious projects to solve concrete problems.  His view: tackle the toughest chunks of a project first.  He describes four projects, two that were terminated (“left behind on the cutting room floor”) and two that are ongoing (self-driving vehicles, Internet balloons).  What was fascinating was handling the dynamic balance between the audacity of aspirations and the reality of failures, plus the occasional need for teams to change their perspectives and assumptions.

So let’s think about moon shots in I-O psychology.  I-O professionals continue to become more respected and more visible in all kinds of organizations: private-sector, public-sector nonprofits, and government.  We serve in senior corporate and government leadership positions, and also on National Academies Boards and Committees, and at the United Nations.  The demand for evidence-based practice about people at work keeps expanding.

SIOP’s incorporation in 1982 marked a major transition for I-O professionals, from an all-volunteer underfunded dependency of APA into an autonomous self-funded association of professional, one that has student members, its own annual conferences and leadership consortia, two book series and a journal, and ties to many other associations.  Membership and conference attendance counts are at all-time highs. If you will, it was I-O’s first moon shot.

Creation of the SIOP Foundation in 1996, another major transition, leveraged charitable giving provisions of US tax law to amplify SIOP’s awards program to include scholarships and grants.  The first Owens and Myers Awards were given in 1998, and since then the endowments have grown to over $4M.  Cumulative distributions have topped $1M.  Up to this point, 100% of every donation has gone directly to the Foundation’s purposes (SIOP has covered the overhead). Another moon shot.

At present the Foundation trustees are working toward another major transition—greatly expanding grants available for I-O R&D, both in terms of numbers and size. 

To this end much has happened and is happening:

  • We clarified our mission: Connecting Donors with I-O Psychology Professionals to Create Smarter Workplaces.
  • We are building a new website to better tell the stories of award and scholarship winners and grant recipients. 
  • We taped Tom Bouchard’s Dunnette Prize invited address at the Chicago SIOP Conference, “Finding Out How Things Work.”  It debuted on YouTube on Aug. 22, 2018, where it continues to be available: View the video here.
  • The Awards Strategy Task Force reported its recommendations to the SIOP Executive Board and to the SIOP Foundation Board just last month.  Many recommendations pertaining to creating, publicizing, and presenting of awards have been implemented.
  • In February 2019 we are running a pilot Horizon Forum, a small group meeting to help shape I-O research and development by highlighting emerging questions: What’s on your horizon and keeps you awake at night? 
  • We have applied for Guide Star certification to demonstrate full transparency in managing our affairs, a step that is important in making the SIOP Foundation visible to the general public and especially to corporate and private foundations. 
  • We are introducing the Visionary Circle, a venture to build a renewable and continuing source of funding for I-O research and development.  Here is version 1.0 of the key initiative: Soon we will recruit 100 donors to contribute $1,000 to the SIOP Foundation, thereby providing a $100,000 grant to the winner of the 2020 Visionary Grant competition.  A committee will select the finalists. Four finalists will present their proposals during the SIOP Conference in Austin, and the winner will be announced at the closing plenary.
  • We expect to learn quite a lot from version 1.0, all of it going into version 2.0 as needed.  Surely there are more than 100 people who are visionaries about our applied science.  We need a sea change for SIOP and our applied organizational science.

Will all this add up to another major transition for I-O psychology?    

Just after the end of World War II, visionary leaders of medicine, biology, and chemistry got together and laid the groundwork for rapid advancement in the field now known as microbiology.  The structure of DNA was discovered, and all of us are beneficiaries.

Rapid advancement in I-O psychology and the organizational sciences now is surely needed.  

The mania about big data and AI systems is at flood tide, with no shortage of need for critical and clear thinking about creating smarter workplaces.  We think that the time is right.  Let us know what you think.


Milt Hakel, President, mhakel@bgsu.edu
Rich Klimoski, Vice-President, rklimosk@gmu.edu
Nancy Tippins, Secretary, Nancy.Tippins@tippinsgroup.com
Leaetta Hough, Treasurer, leaetta@msn.com
Adrienne Colella, Communications Officer, acolella@tulane.edu
Mirian Graddick-Weir, Trustee, mirian_graddick-weir@merck.com
Bill Macey, Trustee, wmacey9@gmail.com
John C Scott, Trustee, JScott@APTMetrics.com

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