Musing About Failure

by julia.hanigsberg | November 2nd, 2011

I recently popped the search term “failure” into the Harvard Business review site and got 965 hits. Articles/blogs on hbr.org had great titles such as “Enjoy the Fun of Failure,” “The Worst Failure of All Is Wasting a Failure,” and “Today’s Innovation Can Rise from Yesterday’s Failure.” The Harvard Business Review had a whole special issue on failure. Just for fun I tried Google and got 400,000 hits including a great commercial entitled “Failure” featuring Michael Jordan with a quote I’ve long had pasted on my desk.

So this is my “data” (wholly unscientific) on the popularity of failure particularly as it relates to its sister concepts risk, innovation and entrepreneurship. These terms are finding broad usage far beyond their origins out into corporate, institutional and government sectors. All this talk about failure seems to set up a dichotomy between those who take chances and failure, otherwise known as the “innovators” (and maybe the “cool kids”) and those who stick to the rules and don’t tolerate failure, “the bureaucrats.” So what is the reality behind this failure talk? And how much tolerance do I really have for risk and failure in my work?

A friend was recently lamenting his own failure to successfully conclude a multi-party deal with complex governance and multiple stakeholders. His analysis came down to “why am I so lousy at what I do?” My challenge back was two-fold:

If one of your team had failed to close a similar deal would your conclusion about her be that she’s lousy? He immediately admitted that the answer was of course not: he’d coach her to find the lessons learned and would redirect her in a more positive direction. In other words he’d do exactly what we’d expect a great leader to do. We need to think about what tolerance we have for our OWN failures if we are going to successfully lead others.

If you are going to take risks (and his was a multi-million dollar very public effort) then we have to sincerely be willing to fail and not just pay lip service to failure because it is in vogue. When we fail we have got to analyze, learn the lessons and move on to the next thing. In other words, leaders should not model failure equating DEFEAT.

I also wonder if there is a gender dimension to how we interpret failure. I was recently reminded by Michael Bryant, the former Ontario Attorney General, of an observation we made about applicants for appointments to be judges of the Provincial Court. Women who applied and weren’t appointed seldom re-applied, while men didn’t seem to have any compunction about applying many times over. Did the women interpret from the “failure” to make it through on the first try that they weren’t qualified? Did the men take a more “better luck next time” approach?

So, how much and what kind of failure am I willing to tolerate in myself and in others? I’m still figuring that out as part of my leadership journey. Here is a start: I don’t have any time for failure to live up to  “north star” values such as respect, tolerance, civility and equity or for failures in holding ourselves to standards we have agreed that we’ll achieve:  that’s the responsibility and challenge we take on, for example, when we clearly articulate our values.

Also, we simply can’t fail when it comes to obligations under the laws and policies that govern our activities. On the other hand I want to see risk-taking/failure that results from well-defined experiments in innovation from which lessons can be learned and improvements developed. And, I can’t help but think that failure that is small, fast and cheap is likely also to be smart (see “Entrepreneurs and the Cult of Failure” on “good” failure).

How much tolerance for risk and failure do you have?

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