‘Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win’ by Ryan Babineaux and John Krumboltz is just one example of how the cult of failure has entered mainstream conciousness. In it, the authors laud businesses such as Pixar for their creative process noting: “Giving yourself permission to make a mess of things is particularly important if you do any sort of creative work.” They then expand on their theme by saying that “all people are creative—which is to say that they live in the real world, form ideas, come up with solutions to problems, have dreams, and forge their own path; your own life is your ultimate creation.” Now, that last sentiment is an admirable one and not even the most churlish amongst us would wish anything else for our fellow humans but there is something insidious about the notion of giving yourself permission to fail that really bothers me. Firstly, that it’s not actually a realistic option for most people (in a work context at least) and secondly, that even if it is possible, it doesn’t follow that it won’t be at the expense of someone or something else. Unless you work in a lab or are Richard Branson, as with pretty much anything you read on the latest leadership fad, the kind of creative experimentation referred to here is simply not going to feature in your work. At most its the highly polished veneer on the turd of working life.
“Yeah, sorry that report was late. I gave myself permission to try a different format but it didn’t work out so I had to do it all over again.”
“I was late with my rent again and now my landlord is kicking me out.” “Yeah, sorry ’bout that. We tried a new version of the payroll software but it didn’t work out.”
Over at brainyquotes.com there are 40 pages of quotes from luminaries past and present (like the one from J. K. Rowling at the head of this post) celebrating failure. A more critical reading shows that for the most part they only hold true if the spirit of the sentiment is applied at a very intimate, personal level. Constitutional rights of the individual may only be exercised as long as so doing does not impinge on the rights of others. So it should follow for failure. Try a simple exercise. Add “at the expense of others” to any quote you care to pick and see how the meaning changes.
A couple of examples:
“The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall at the expense of others.”
“An essential aspect of creativity is not being afraid to fail at the expense of others.”
“Success is the result of perfection, hard work, learning from failure, loyalty, and persistence at the expense of others.”
Much of the noise around glorious failure is coming, as is so often the case these days, from Silicon Valley. A “Move fast, break things” mantra might be expected from a firm that had its beginnings as a “hot or not” clone built by college students and especially a business whose users do not pay for its service so they can experiment and piss them off as much as they like. There is, of course, nothing at all wrong with experimentation but it does need to be done under controlled conditions, even if the control is nothing more than a mutual acceptance that a process towards a defined goal, within a defined budget, will be emergent or experiential. People are more than happy to pay for a product and an experience but their expectations are defined beforehand. People will gladly hand over a small fortune to go see the Rolling Stones perform their greatest hits but would be less happy were Mick Jagger to come on stage at Wembley and announce that they’d given themselves permission to experiment with a set played entirely on alpine horns.
I demand an apology!
The routine goes something like this: Try – Fail – Apologise – Learn – Move on. But, if in failing you’ve failed others, how far does an apology actually go?
It’s OK to fail
People in banks experimented with CDOs and other complex financial instruments they didn’t fully understand and kick-started the deepest recession in living memory.
It’s OK to fail
People in the supply chain take shortcuts and horse meat enters the food chain through high street supermarkets.
It’s OK to fail
People at a private firm collectively decide to take on large government contracts maintaining the accommodation of vulnerable people and try and figure out how to make it work once they’ve won the business. Sample quotes: “the whole floor has diarrhoea and” there “is vomiting” on the floor. “An ambulance comes to the building every week.”
It’s OK to fail
Taxpayers lose £350m as people at the UK’s Home Office take the belated decision to ditch the flagship immigration IT system.
Wile E. Coyote is perhaps one of the most celebrated examples of glorious failure from popular culture. But even this master of the art perpetually fails to trap the Road Runner and all of his mishaps serve only to deflect harm back on himself. If that were the only consequence of experimentation and failure at work it would be a virtuous circle for personal learning. However, at work, as in much of life, our actions and decisions have impacts on those around us.
Giving yourself permission to fail is putting pressure on others to pick up the pieces.