“Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off the goal.”—Henry Ford

TEMPLE GRANDIN is an author and speaker on both autism and animal behavior. She is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and also has a successful career consulting on animal welfare and livestock-handling equipment design. She has been featured on the BBC special The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow, and her 2010 TED Talk, “The World Needs All Kinds of Minds,” now has nearly five million views. Articles about her have appeared in Time magazine, The New York Times, Discover magazine, Forbes, and USA Today. HBO made an Emmy Award–winning movie about her life starring Claire Danes, and she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2016.

How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?
When I first started my career designing facilities for handling livestock, I mistakenly believed that there was an engineering fix for every problem. With the right design and engineering, all problems associated with moving animals could be solved. A big failure of one of my projects taught me that the root causes of problems have to be addressed. In 1980, I was hired to design a conveyor system that would move hogs to the third floor of an old meatpacking plant in Cincinnati. The hogs were having difficulty walking up the long ramps. With much enthusiasm, I took this job and designed a conveyorized chute. It was a total failure. The pigs sat down and flipped over backward. Further observations indicated that most of the hogs that had difficulty climbing the ramp came from a single farm. Fixing the problems at this farm would have been much easier and cheaper than the big conveyor mess I had created. A change in pig genetics would have solved most of the problems.

What I learned from this design disaster was that I had attempted to treat the symptom of a problem instead of its cause. From that point forward in my career, I was careful to differentiate between problems that can be fixed with new equipment and problems that should be fixed by other means. Later in my career, I have observed that people want the magic new thing more than they want improved management to fix problems. Managers need to carefully determine the areas in their business where new technology is the right choice and other areas where a back-to-basics management approach may be more effective.

When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do?

When I was in my 20s, somebody had written on the wall of the university art building “Obstacles are those terrible things you see when you take your eyes off the goal.” I have since learned that this was a quote from Henry Ford and the actual wording was “frightful” instead of “terrible.” Throughout my career, I have designed many livestock handling systems for many of the major meat companies. During these projects, I have worked with both the very best plant managers and the worst. To deal with this, I developed the concept of “project loyalty.” My job is to do a good job and make the project work. A bad plant manager is an obstacle that I have to work around. The concept of project loyalty has helped keep me going and successfully complete my projects.

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