Admitting to failure, and claiming it as some sort of achievement is a pretty alien concept. In many organisations the approach to failure is often a combination of; find someone to blame, deny it ever happened or bury the evidence (fast and deep).
Well, there is a different point of view. In this TEDx video Professor Jack Matson talks about the need to embrace ‘fast intelligent failure’ and avoid ‘slow stupid failure’.
There are a number of reasons why embracing failure might be good for you:
- Its where you learn most. You might recognise this from your own experiences. I do, and in this post I’ve tried to demonstrate that the greater the emotional pain of failure, the more you learn.
- It leads to improvement. It’s part of a virtuous cycle of improvement: fail, make improvements, try again etc etc. Apparently Edison tried 1000 times and made 999 improvements before the light bulb was perfected.
- It supports innovation. The experiences and learning from failure lead to; new ideas, unplanned and unintended innovations and new products.
- It helps build resilience. Experiencing small, low cost, relatively safe failures is a good way of building up your understanding of what failure feels like and develops resilience. Experiencing a huge failure as a first time event could have a more detrimental impact than if you’ve only ever succeeded in the past.
- It can be a motivator. For some people the experience of failure might be the motivation they require to drive them forwards.
- It teaches you some humility. An odd one this, but not everyone can be a winner. Understanding what it feels like to fail might help some of life’s ‘born winners’ to be a bit more compassionate and understanding.
Just to prove I’m not alone in my new obsession with failure here are a few examples of where failure has been used successfully (if that statement makes sense….)
Jack Matson Failure 101. During the 1980s and 1990s Jack Matson taught engineering students to deliberately fail. The TEDx video and this article from the Chicago Tribune give a taste of what lead up to his 1996 book, ‘Innovate or Die’. The concept of ‘intelligent fast failure’ where you rapidly test new ideas, learn from failures and apply the learning to the next situation is explained in the book.
Trojan Mice and Safe to Fail Experiments. Dave Snowden introduced me to the concept of safe to fail experiments which I’ve written about previously as ‘Trojan Mice’. When I last saw him present he described the criteria for setting up safe to fail pilots which included the requirement that some pilots are actually designed to fail. The graphic I’ve used at the start of the post was created at Dave’s talk.
The Institute of Brilliant Failures. This is a ‘brilliant’ website that provides all sorts of information on failures, the sort of website you can spend a lot of time browsing (beware). I was particularly interested in The Museum of Failed Products which is a collection of consumer products, of which apparently 90% have failed. This Guardian article, where The Museum is also featured, discusses some of the disadvantages of being relentlessly positive, rather that a bit of stoicism is well worth reading.
Even Honda are Failing. This is an interesting video from Honda; ‘Failure -The Secret of Success’. A number of the Honda people talk in the video about how they have experienced some fairly major failures, and how they all seemed to lead on to something bigger and better. The most interesting thing for me was the organisational culture that seems to support this. It must be very liberating to work in that sort of environment; but I do have to wonder, where are the Six Sigma people?
Churchill knew it. “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm”. Its always good to end on a Churchill quote.
I would like to thank some people who provided some inspiration in writing this post:
Failure Dynamics http://failureconsulting.wordpress.com for pointing me in the direction of Jack Matson
Mark Hodder (@MarkHodder555) for the link to the Museum of Failed Products
So, what’s the PONT?
- Lots or organisations (and people) could benefit from more openly accepting that failure does happen.
- Doing things in a ‘safe to fail’ environment might help to encourage innovation and build up resilience to future failures.
- Above all, go ahead and stick it on your CV. Failure is a great way of showing that you’ve learnt something.
Picture Source: Wales Audit Office seminar with Dave Snowden. Graphics byhttp://www.auralab.co.uk http://www.wao.gov.uk/assets/englishdocuments/WAO_DaveSnowden_sketchnotes_Auralab.pdf