Failure Fetishism and the Language of Success

Failure is always an option

This month’s Harvard Business Review is focusing on failure, showcasing a concept that was once avoided at all costs. But is this new lexicon of success by failure really helpful?

The global design firm IDEO has a mantra that caught my attention when it was first shown to me many years ago.

Fail often to succeed sooner

The thinking behind this is that lots of ineffective ideas create the likelihood that one of them will be effective. In other words, to generate good ideas, you need to first generate a lot of bad ones.

This month, the Harvard Business Review, features a special issue on the subject of failure and how it impacts organizations and innovation.

It seems we have come a long way from a culture that once embraced the words of NASA flight director Gene Kranz who, in speaking of the efforts to save the Apollo 13 mission and crew, told his charges:

Failure is not an option

It is perhaps ironic that the Apollo 13 mission is held as one of greatest examples of creative problem-solving ever cited.

Failure is a tricky beast as it invokes a lot of emotion. Decades of formal education have taught us to fear failure and that it was a negative thing. It was one thing to get a low grade on an assignment, but to outright fail a course was (for some) a fate worse than death. It is for that reason that the widespread embracing of the concept seems so unusual.

In his column in HBR, Daniel Isenberg seeks to calm the enthusiasm for failure that has taken over much of the discourse on innovation:

Well-intentioned though they may be, these attempts to celebrate failure are misguided. Fear should not be confused with anxiety—and celebrating failure seems aimed at reducing anxiety.

To deal with the anxiety part, Isenberg points to three strategies:

1. Accept failure as a natural part of doing business

2. Remove structural obstacles to reduce the objective risks of a failed venture

3. Turn failure into fodder

The last one is perhaps the most important for anyone seeking to make good from bad, but this language in itself is what I find problematic (including my use of the term “good” and “bad”). As Shakespeare’s Hamlet suggests:

Why, then, ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so

The concept of failure, as discussed above, hinges on language of fear and cultural expectations of success. In some cultures, this can be overly intense (see my post on Tiger Moms). Rather than viewing outcomes as failures or successes, might it not be worth considering a spectrum of effectiveness from “highly relevant discoveries” (making obvious strides towards achieving an objective) to “less relevant discoveries” (non-obvious strides towards an objective). It’s a small point, but one worth noting.

If we fear failure and it has been engrained as something to fear most of our life, any celebrating it now is going to fall on deaf (unconscious) ears. And if that is true, we will be losing opportunities to innovate. If people embraced failure all the time, HBR wouldn’t need a special issue.

Our entrainment to what we see as “success” also leads us to certain dominant perspectives of what that means, shutting down discourse on other ways of seeing the problem. My post yesterday on the Toronto slutwalk hints at this: if we focus on the sensational elements we miss the deeper meaning; by diving too deeply into an issue we risk missing ways to connect more broadly.

The entire success / failure language requires recasting the entire language into something less anxiety producing and more optimistic: a sort of Twitter Fail Whale for innovation. By removing the fear of discovery, we are much more likely to innovate and that is good for all of us.

Failing is fun
** Photo from tinou bou used under Creative Commons License from Flickr

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