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The Fallacy of Failure

Updated: Jun 3, 2022

Celebrate Failure! Fail Fast! Safe to Fail!

‘Failure’ is all the rage in business buzzwords today. But is ‘failure’ really being adopted in organizations? And furthermore, should it?

Something has been nagging at me with all this failure talk. Let’s see if we can unpack it and put it back together in a way that is more useful than the current messaging around failure.

Years ago, a friend asked me how I stay so motivated through my failures. I looked at her kind of strange and said “What do you mean? I never fail.” She laughed and proceeded to recite a list of my failures. What are friends for, right? The thing is, I never thought of anything on her list as a failure. My reaction was “Oh is that what people mean when they say failure?” I truly had no idea. I wasn’t celebrating my failures, I wasn’t making it safe to fail, I wasn’t failing fast. And on the flip side, I wasn’t trying to be perfect either. I was simply in the present and looking forward all the time.

“I never look back darling, it distracts from the now” - Edna Mode, The Incredibles

Failure is a backward-looking concept. Failure requires you to look backward, to dwell on the past. To try and make sense of the past. Who can we blame? How can we avoid this happening again?

What’s the difference between ‘how can we avoid this happening again’ and ‘forward-looking’? There is a subtle difference here. By looking for what to avoid, you narrow the path with fear and avoidance. Forward-looking implies a focus on what we might create. It’s the difference between “That job wasn’t for me. I’m going to avoid retail from now on.” and “That job wasn’t for me… I will look for something that allows for more creativity.”

Staying forward-looking creates advancement, forward motion. Each so-called-failure shapes an even better path.

Failure has a time element. I had a job once that was ...well...terrible. Did I fail at that job? Well yes, I guess I did if the time frame ends when the job ended. But boy did that set me up to quickly identify situations that would nourish my creativity and energy. Would I rather push a rock uphill in that job so I could ‘succeed’, or would I rather leave that job and flourish with more clarity? If I extend the time frame to a decade, that terrible experience was a real success!

Failure has an implied time box. I don’t believe you truly know if you failed until the end of time, and even then it’s kind of pointless to know. I hear companies say things like “It’s ok to fail as long as we learn from it.” I’m curious about when their deadline is for learning from failure? And if they don’t learn fast enough, is the failure a failure?

Safe to fail. Let’s address the elephant in the room - ‘Safe to Fail’. It’s a misnomer. It implies carte blanche on failing. Safe to fail is setting companies up for …. wait for it….wait for it….failure!

Perhaps a better way to say this is ‘safe to experiment’. I love the idea of asking “What would make it safe to experiment?”

I think some of the implication of ‘safe to fail’ is that there won’t be blame followed by lynching. And of course, we all like this idea. There’s a healthy response to failure for sure, and blame is not healthy. But it doesn’t mean ‘free of consequence’ because there will be accountability and consequences. If you bring down the company, it wasn’t safe, because you’re now out of business. No feel-good-HR policy can save you from going out of business.

Failures aren't’ willy-nilly. I love the concept of ‘experiment and learn’ way better than ‘safe to fail’ because it’s bounded and outcome-oriented.

Experiments are bounded by time and scope. I’m not just failing all sloppy and all over the place, I’m testing a hypothesis. And we’ve decided to invest in that test, whether it succeeds or fails.

Experiments are outcome-oriented. I’m not giving you free rein to go fail at whatever you want to. And we may not be looking for failures in certain areas like places where lives are at stake for example. We want to take risks and experiment as we advance towards a goal or outcome.

Brain Twist. Have you incorporated failure in your company? How is it working for you? Try bounding your experiments with time and guardrails. Narrow the question to “what would make this experiment safe?” instead of “how do we make a culture where it’s safe to fail?”

Originally published August 2, 2019

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