Issue 2.4 | November 2010

In this Article: how we can reap the benefits of failure.

by Jonathan Wilson

Failure is a gift.  If it were not for failure, we would continue further into destructive ideas and behaviours than failure allows us to do.  Failure prevents further failure.  This is true personally and it is true organizationally.  It is also true systemically.  When the house of cards of derivatives and sub-prime mortgages collapsed in 2008, we witnessed a failure that negatively impacted every corner of the world.  It could, however, have been worse.  Imagine the impact if the financial tomfoolery that took us to the brink had persisted.  It was not someone’s initiative that prevented further catastrophe.  It was the financial system’s failure.

Failure is not a pleasant gift.  It comes at a cost.  The suffering due to lost jobs continues as national economies struggle forward.  Other failures (such as structural failures in aircraft) lead to peoples’ deaths.  Failure often brings harm.  Failure’s initial benefit is only that it stops bad things from getting worse.  However, we can gain further from failure if we choose.

Failure places us at a fork in the road.  We can learn from the failure and make the necessary corrections to improve whatever it is that failed – whether our organization, our product, our services, or ourselves (for failures can reveal flaws not only in technologies and processes, but in our character).   Or we can demonstrate the wisdom of the ancient biblical proverb: “As a dog returns to its vomit, so the fool repeats his folly” (Proverbs 26:11).

To take the road that leads to learning seems quite obviously the better choice.  But too often it is not the choice we make.  The previous Leadership by Soul article recounted the story of a real-life leader who failed.  As the organization foundered and political infighting spread, “Martin” blamed the developing disaster on the lack of vision among his senior managers.  His supporters blamed the negative behaviours of his opponents.  Their respective diagnoses possessed a degree of validity.  But as one older manager remarked, “Martin is the leader.  The condition of this organization is his responsibility.  If his managers are rebelling, he should not be looking at them, but at himself, for an explanation.”

Denial is Not the Road to a Better World

The one thing that will prevent us from taking the road to a better solution (indeed, to a better world) is dishonesty: when we refuse to admit that what has happened is indeed a failure to which we have contributed.  To refuse to admit a failure is to set ourselves up for worse failure to come.

Behind this denial lies our need to stay comfortable.  If there is a possibility we have personally failed, the threat of humiliation creates a barrier to admission.  If the failure lies in a system or a technology or an assumption, the threat of change can also drive us to dishonesty.  We’d rather maintain the status quo.  Put simply, the barrier to a better world is our ego.

Today there are numerous examples of such forks in the road, and time will show whether the travellers at the fork choose folly or honesty.  Google failed when code written into the software of its Street View cars picked up potentially compromising data from private wireless networks in countries across the world.  It says it will learn from this.  Even so, the value of its solution(s) will be contingent on the degree to which it is honest about what actually happened (for example, whether the code really was rogue or deliberately written in).  The current revitalizing of financial markets (in North America in particular) requires not just honesty about the greed of Wall Street executives and a critique of their flawed financial instruments: it requires an acknowledgement of the average American’s complicity too, since it takes an equal lack of judgement to buy a house on “zero down”.  Again, a proper solution to America’s economic woes requires honesty, not just on Wall Street, but on Main Street.

The initial gift of failure – the interruption of disastrous behaviours – comes without our asking, and its benefit is temporary.  To reap the full benefit of failure, however, you and I have to make a choice.  We have to seize the opportunity to learn from it.

Admission of failure is a leadership trait.  The willingness to acknowledge failure predicates every great innovation or transformation.  If Alexander Fleming, Thomas Edison or Albert Einstein had refused to admit failure (of process, technique or theory) at some point in their work, we would be without penicillin, the world’s first antibiotic; the light bulb; and (among many possible examples) the synchronization of global positioning system (GPS) satellites around the earth.  If South Africa’s FW de Klerk had been unwilling to admit the failure of his party’s Apartheid system, Nelson Mandela would not have emerged from prison to lead the country into a new future.  If Ray Anderson had taken the easier road of denial, his company, Interface, would not be the leader in “greening” the highly polluting carpet industry, all the while continuing to dominate the market.  It has been listed by Fortune as one of the “Most Admired Companies in America” and the “100 Best Companies to Work For.”

Every innovation that improves the world is built on the gift of failure.  For failure to provide not only the temporary gift of prevention but also the long-term benefit of a solution, it has to be admitted.  We step onto the pathway to a better world when we grasp the nettle that is the admission of failure.

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