Epic Fails & Corporate Facepalms

wile-e-coyoteIt is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by defaultJ. K. Rowling

‘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.

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11 comments

  1. I can see your point that sometimes failures can lead to some pretty awful consequences, but I think failure is a fact of life. I’m not sure anyone purposefully goes out with an intention to fail. People go out with the intention to make something different and sometimes they make mistakes which can be costly. Other times that ‘mistake’ is the thing which causes something to be successful. That is the price of innovation. Without failure you would never have change or progress.

    I do think the important thing about failure is how you react. Celebrating it may not necessarily be the way forward, but certainly admitting it and learning from it (as you point out) is.

    Part of successful team-work is all about picking up the pieces if something does go wrong. If you’re a team player you recognise that you may need to help someone else out if they fail, but equally they will help you in return if needed.

    I think one of the great things about ‘improv’ for learning is that it creates a ‘safe’ environment where you actually cannot fail. Every ‘failure’ is just a step towards something else which may end up being better than the original ‘fail’. In fact – sometimes the most memorable failures are the things that are the most successful in terms of comedy – failure creates laughs and happy accidents. Without people being prepared to fail you will never have discovered what you could go on to create.

  2. Hi Lesley. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. I think you are right about general intent but I also think that people have a tendency to not consider all of the consequences of failure. In the context of innovation and experimentation, in a controlled environment, luck or serendipity can and does happen. I’m not convinced that progress is entirely dependent on failure though. Resilience and adaptability are important traits as is taking personal responsibility and accountability. The model of teamwork you mention is an ideal that I don’t see happen nearly enough because not all people play by the same unwritten etiquette.

  3. Hi, Simon. I am responding here to your invitation to comment in public about my tweet-reply to the Twitter exchange wherein I said upon a first read I thought the post about the growing glibness about failing might be a bit disingenuous.

    Before I continue .. let me say that I agree wholeheartedly with the premise (of the notion become somewhat glib .. a growing phenomenon with any number of good ideas thanks to the fast-moving and almost-always-superficial surface flows we witness on mainstream social media channels/platforms).

    A more careful and attentive read of your post revealed to me two conditionals thatI think add ‘oomph’ or solidity to your premise ..

    1) ” Add .. “at the expense of others” and see how the meaning changes”,

    2) “There is, of course, nothing at all wrong with experimentation but it does need to be done under controlled conditions”

    My understanding of the serious intent behind the widespread discussion (if that is what it is) of the utility of failing faster to learn faster, or not immediately penalizing failure in order to build towards engendering amore responsive, flexible, and supportive-of-potential innovation culture is drawn from the Cynefin framework for navigating complexity (Dave Snowden, Cognitive Edge). In this framework dave advocates .. nay, stipulates .. that complexity and disorder are most effectively addressed by introducing constraints or defined boundaries for examining and deciding about initiatives when facing complex or chaotic conditions.

    In such conditions (complexity and/or chaos), experimentation raises the odds of failure. Defining pertinent constraints and/or boundaries for the experimentation keeps the learning and adaptation possibilities on track more than would less-well- or not-well-defined experimentation, but does not guarantee avoiding failure. But acknowledging and understanding the failure catalyzes (at least potentially) solid learning.

    Where I got a bit pedantic was in the choice of the latter examples, which I believe were intended to reinforce your premise. CDOs experimentation, Horse meat, Enron (I think that was the reference ?) and the Home Office fiasco were not well-designed from the outset IMO, and the people taking the decisions regarding the undertaking of these initiatives were any one or all of immoral, incompetent, unaware and/or uncaring about the systems into which they introduced the initiatives. In these and such cases, I believe strongly that the failure(s) should not be tolerated and the people responsible should be penalized or jettisoned.

    Like I said, I am probably being pedantic. Your premise is not wrong.

    I hope what I wrote here is understandable 😉

    1. Jon,
      Thank you for this comprehensive comment, which I read as “After some initial doubts, I agree”. I value your input and the time and thought that you put in to commenting. It’s given me some further reading to go away and do and someone with a lively intellect to follow on Twitter. Again, many thanks.

  4. I’d take a different slant on this. There are reasons for the failures you list in the post and I’m not sure they are rooted in innovating in order to provide a better product or service for employees/clients/customers. Failing is currently talked about in the context of innovating. My beef with the word is that ‘failure’ is too loaded a word to describe giving something a go, it not working , dusting yourself off and trying again. Because that is what we are talking about when it comes to innovation. And that is not what kids are taught at school and it is not what we nurture at work. Failure is just that – something that is hard to come back from.When I think of failures I think of those on the scale you mention, not small, iterative fails that are easier to come back from. I like the work of Eric Ries, author of the Lean Startup, and the idea of measured learning through trial and error. The concept of ‘trial and error’ seems more appropriate than fail and fail fast etc. Orgainsations need better ways to put a trial and error process into the way they work and a focus on the learning that comes from that.

    1. Hi Martin. Thanks so much for the comment. I can’t say I disagree with what anything you’ve said. What I’m really trying to point out, by using extreme examples, is the irresponsibility of the way in which “failure” is talked about (along with much else in the sphere of management/leadership media) as aspiration without framing it in context or caveating with the high degree of responsibility it entails. I’d hope it’s also a comment on the fact that, however much we’d like, we can’t all be bloody Pixar. I like Ries on measured learning through trial and error too.

  5. Isn’t the Web a wonderful thing (most days 😉 ?

    1. Indeed it is, Jon. Indeed it is.

  6. I enjoyed the idea of you using Wile.E Coyote in your article, which I think sums up the idea you are portraying. Failing is not OK if it results in negatively affecting you or those around you. Wile. E Coyote and his family should have starved to death by now.

    If I can give a personal expample, I believe it is OK for me to fail at drawing a piece of art if it is at my own leisure as I am not dissapointing anyone but myself. I have the option of “going back to the drawing board” and improving my skills because of this failure.

    In turn, if I am at work and conciously think “it’s OK to fail” this is wrong, as my income provides support to my family and myself. Failing would result in me loosing my job. I can’t pay rent and my family are worse off. Not only do you loose out but others do also.

    This article, unlike so many others, is not accepting failure but is putting it into perspective when it comes to thinking about how your actions affect those around you. Failure as a positive or negative depends on the situation it derives from.

  7. Thanks for this post Simon – great to see how much conversation it has generated. I have mixed feelings about this whole thing. Perhaps I can illustrate this using s couple of your examples:
    “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.”
    This kind of experimentation can be made much, much simpler, just by getting agreement that – the different things we would like to try may result in delays. Is that acceptable? Negotiate, set some expectations and away you go – why not?
    “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.”
    Yep – this sucks. Playing with people’s livelihood and its direct connections is best avoided. However – what if HR said, ‘we want to introduce a new payroll system because (insert benefits here). We’ve not tried it before, so we’d really appreciate some people volunteering to give it a spin. We will pay the volunteers a few days early using the new system for a few months so we can iron out any kinks, and in the word case scenario, all volunteers will remain on the existing system “just in case”.
    I think that creating space to experiment is essential – and part of that space needs to contain some understanding about what might go right and wrong. Does that make sense?
    Cheers – Doug

    1. Makes perfect sense Doug and thanks for commenting. Perfect illustration of what I was on about when referring to context and respibsibility.

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