Niko Canner Explains Why He Takes Stock of His Daily Failures

The founder of Incandescent on drawing energy from good conversations and the book that changed his life.

When you have the opportunity to ask some of the most interesting people in the world about their lives, sometimes the most fascinating answers come from the simplest questions. The Thrive Questionnaire is an ongoing series that gives an intimate look inside the lives of some of the world’s most successful people.

Thrive Global: What’s the first thing you do when you get out of bed?
Niko Canner: Listen to see if my one-year-old son and two-year-old daughter are stirring.

TG: What gives you energy?
NC: Conversation about the journeys other people are on — themselves or their organizations — and how those journeys can become most successful and most fulfilling. Reading and drawing connections across many fields.

TG: What’s your secret life hack?
NC: Extremely fast task-switching, and complete absorption in whatever conversation or task I’m focused on.

TG: Name a book that changed your life.
NC: Douglas Hofstadter’s “Gödel, Escher, Bach” which I read as a teenager and taught me that thinking about big questions demands going outside the ordinary boundary of disciplines and specialties.

TG: How do you deal with email?
NC: I follow David Allen’s advice about separating out the processing of emails to figure out what I need to do with them from the deeper work of thoughtfully responding.

TG: You unexpectedly find 15 minutes in your day, what do you do with it?
NC: I dash off a few five-minute pieces of work, closing a loop or delegating the next step of some project I’m engaged in, rather than trying to compress into 15 minutes some deeper thinking that would be unsatisfying to compress into such a short span.

TG: When was the last time you felt you failed and how did you overcome it?
NC: I make a habit of noting my small failures more or less daily. They’re legion: everything from being unfairly impatient with a team member, to neglecting to do some small thing that would have moved a larger goal forward, to not bringing my best thinking to some important conversation.

Larger failures happen by accretion and take longer to see. One of my big ones, for instance, was as Managing Partner of Katzenbach Partners, the prior firm I co-founded and led. After years of 25–30% growth, I made a set of decisions that spread our focus to thinly, and in 2007 this led to our failing to grow as planned and ultimately needing to do a significant layoff. By separating out the urgency of “what to do right now” from “what to do over the long term,” I was able to separate out the decisions needed to restore financial health from the ultimate decision about whether to restart organic growth or to sell the firm. After long deliberation, in 2009 we sold the firm to Booz & Company.

TG: Share a quote that you love and that gives you strength or peace.
NC: “The future enters into us, in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens. What begins as a glimmer becomes a purpose, becomes design and discipline.” — Rainer Maria Rilke.


Niko Canner founded Incandescent in 2013, building on nearly twenty years as an advisor to leaders of many of the world’s major companies. Incandescent is a firm that engages with the most fundamental questions of how to create, build and run enterprises through engagement with advisory work, venture development, and research. Earlier in his career, Niko was co-founder and Managing Partner of the consulting firm Katzenbach Partners and Senior Partner at Booz & Company following the sale of Katzenbach to Booz in 2009. Most recently, Niko was a member of the Management Committee of Bridgewater Associates. In addition to his work building Incandescent, Niko is a devotee of poetry, philosophy, and management theory.