The Impostors

There’s a huge interest in failure these days. People are clamoring to be the first to fail, to be the one who fails most frequently, gleefully to fail and fail and fail. Question: Why do you want to adopt [popular method]? Answer: So that we can fail more!

It’s all for a good cause, of course: Failure enables learning. Who doesn’t appreciate an opportunity to learn? If failure leads to learning, then the way to establish a learning organization is to assure failure occurs frequently. The more failure, the more learning.

I often hear people say they are happy to have failed, because they learned something useful from the failure. So I ask them, is that why you like to use [popular method]? Because it leads to frequent failure? Frankly, that doesn’t sound like a compelling sales pitch for [popular method].

Well, not exactly, they stammer in response. [Popular method] actually works quite well, so failure is the exception, not the rule. We succeed most of the time. We succeed at least 85% of the time, because [popular method] is good, and we are intelligent, creative people who work collaboratively to achieve common goals!

So, by your own definition, you are only learning about 15% of the time. And yet, you seek to establish a learning organization. How’s that working out?

Well, not exactly, they stammer again. That isn’t what I meant at all.

I can’t see into your skull, I say. The only way I can guess what you mean is by listening to the words you choose to speak. And this is what you have chosen to say:

  1. We want to create a learning orgaization.
  2. We learn from failure.
  3. [Popular method] assures success most of the time.

Conclusion: Most of the time, we aren’t learning anything.

Well, not exactly, they stammer angrily. You’re twisting my words!

Am I twisting them or simply repeating them?

You are not a nice person. I unfriend you!

Maybe it’s a question of definitions, I suggest, in my characteristically gentle and compassionate way. What do you mean by “failure?”

Well, I mean things didn’t turn out the way we expected them to. Our predictions, our estimates, were not accurate.

I see, say I. So then, your estimates, your predictions, your expectations are so significant that reality itself is supposed to conform to your plan. When reality chooses another direction instead, it’s your fault and you FAIL!!!

Well, when you put it in just those terms, it makes me want to kick you hard somewhere soft. But it also makes me wonder whether “fail” is the best word to describe what I mean. How about, maybe, “space for uncertainty?”

That’s quite different from “fail,” I say. Yet, it still implies a comparison of your expectations at the beginning of an initiative with the ultimate outcome of that initiative. May I offer an alternative?

Okay.

In my view, anything we do has an outcome. From the perspective of any given stakeholder, that outcome may be

  • life-altering
  • very positive
  • somewhat positive
  • mixed
  • somewhat negative
  • very negative
  • irrelevant and uninteresting

When we consider the perspectives of all stakeholders, any given outcome is likely to be all of the above at the same time. Whether a stakeholder deems an outcome to be a “success” or a “failure” depends on how the outcome affects him/her.

Well…okay, I can see that, I guess.

I will add that we aren’t very good at predicting the future, despite all the decades of effort poured into improving our estimation methods. The universe stubbornly persists in being a complex adaptive system. We can anticipate what is likely to happen only for a limited time into the future, for only a limited selection of activities in a well-defined context, and within only a limited range of statistical probability. Would you agree?

Well, yes, I suppose so.

So, where does that leave a person who thinks his/her predictions are of such great significance that the universe ought to comply with them?

That person would be a bit arrogant, I guess.

I would say that person is far, far beyond arrogant, I suggest kindly.

And that’s not all, I add. The words “success” and “failure” have a binary connotation; a feeling of finality. When we succeed, we can retire to a carefree life of luxury; we are finished. When we fail, we should lie down and die; we are finished.

The problem with the implied binary sense of “success” vs. “failure” is that no outcome is final. When we finish one piece of work, we move on to another. We don’t stop until we retire or die. Each outcome we achieve offers learning opportunities that we can apply to subsequent work.

In a sense, then, there are no such things as failure and success. They are illusions, fakes, impostors. We can learn from any outcome, whether it happens to conform with our expectations or not.

When you look at it this way, you are able to learn 100% of the time, and not only on those rare occasions when [popular method] doesn’t force reality to conform with your expectations. It also becomes obvious that no “success” is an unmitigated triumph, and no “failure” is a total loss. In the grand scheme of things, all outcomes are merely outcomes. You can create a learning organization instantly, the very moment when you start to see “success” and “failure” in this light.

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same…
Rudyard Kipling

One thought on “The Impostors

  1. Wonderful, this is a really well put and important point! I certainly hope people won’t fail to understand it! A nifty line you could’ve used “Failure is the new success!”

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