Exploring “failure”

A friend suggested that I write a blog post about “making mistakes” and “failure.” Lo and behold, what should be the subject of the April issue of the Harvard Business Review, but “Failure”, or the “F Word” as Adi Ignatius, Editor in Chief of HBR, calls it in his issue introduction. (p. 12)

The articles in this issue have helped me realize just how ill equipped we are, as a culture, to cope with being wrong, making an error, or failing in a bigger way. And they point out how that inability to cope makes it impossible for us to learn from our mistakes. Making mistakes and learning from them is, in my view, a fundamental part of the human condition. In addition, some of the failures described in this HBR issue make me think that we need new language for some of what we call failures in everyday life.

One of the “failures” described in “When Failure Looks Like Success”, by Andrew Zolti and Ann Marie Healy, (HBR, April 2011) is an effort to bring potable water to Bangladesh, between 1972 and into the 2000s — a country the size of Iowa with a population of 90,000,000. Wells were built, pulling pure underground water to the surface. After the wells became status symbols and were used as part of daughters’ dowries, it was discovered that the country’s natural store of arsenic had seeped into the water. The results were catastrophic:

  • People were poisoned;
  • 1 in 5 wells were deemed unsafe;
  • Safe wells had to be identified, causing stigmatization of those with tainted wells;
  • The arsenic in the well water contaminated the rice, which constituted 73% of the population’s diet;
  • People with arsenic poisoning were stigmatized.

Can you imagine? This “failure” is a catastrophe in my view. This is not just a mistake in judgment.

But what about “failures and mistakes” in everyday life? Maybe you already have a different view of “failure” after reflecting on the Bangladesh example.

We have collective shame around the possibility of failing. So much so that we don’t take the risk to try something new for fear of failing; we don’t delegate a task because we are afraid that person will fail. We don’t speak up when we know that a mistake has been made because we are afraid that we will be blamed.

In the article, “Strategies for Learning from Failure”, by Amy Edmondson, (HBR, April 2011) she talks about “the blame game.” In my view, as soon as we assign fault to ourselves or others, we impair our ability to assess the nature of the mistake and to learn from the situation. In her research with executives, Edmondson found that only 2-5% of failures were really worthy of blaming another person(s), but 70-90% of failures were treated as blameworthy (p 50.). Wow! No wonder we, as a culture, are afraid to make mistakes. People feel unsafe speaking up because in fact, they are blamed in 70-90% of the cases.

As I mentioned above, perhaps some of the prevailing views of “failure” and mistakes are in the language we use. As I learned from the underlying assumptions of Appreciative Inquiry , “words make worlds.” What we call something and how we define it governs our response. For me there is a difference between making mistakes, failing and an experiment that doesn’t work.

There are benign mistakes in judgment: Mmmmm … wrong judgment call about the traffic on the highway – I should have taken the back roads. There are mistakes in judgment that are not so benign (but not catastrophic!) … when to pull the plug on a project that is losing money or telling someone something in such a way that their feelings are unnecessarily hurt.

Then there are mistakes in approach: It may be a mistake, for instance, to draft an agenda for a meeting before you are certain about who the audience is … how many people will be there and who they are (again, not catastrophic). We can learn from these mistakes as long as we do not read these errors as commentary on ourselves as worthy human beings.

And then there are experiments. In which category do we put an experiment that doesn’t work, or “fails”? It’s not an experiment if we already know the outcome. We can’t discover new things if we don’t experiment. When does an experiment become a failure?

Rosabeth Moss Kanter says in her article called “Cultivate a Culture of Confidence” (HBR, April 2011), “Successes are always punctuated by slips, slides and mini turnarounds” (p.34). In fact, she coined a law: “Anything can look like a failure in the middle.” What I interpret that to mean is that every creative venture has downturns, times when the direction needs to be adjusted, when the results are different than we thought they’d be, when a product is not as popular as we’d hoped. Whatever it is, we have to make adjustments and regroup. That can feel like failure. In fact, it is only a recalibration. We should assume that a new venture, a new approach, a new project will require recalibration – often! Imagine if someone had spoken up as soon as he or she had a glimmer that important steps were missing from the Bangladesh potable water project.

In order to learn from mistakes, we must take the long view and develop resilience, an ability to bounce back from low points. We need to establish a support network, and keep the perspective that excellence and success require discipline, vigilance and some distance from the work. Just as I am not the failure, I am also not the success. As a culture, somehow, we have to get a handle on our individual and group ability to cope with failure so we don’t contribute to catastrophes.


Martha Lask’s Blog

Occasional musings about books, articles or tools that might be of interest; I welcome your comments.

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