Failure is Not a Positive


A while back, people from the tech world began postulating about the value of failure. The context was that failure may not be a waste if the lessons can be built upon. One should never use “fear of failure” as an excuse not to do something.

The problem is that now people are talking about failure as if it is a good thing, something to be pursued. It isn’t.

FAILURE IS BAD.

If someone fails once, no biggie. If they fail more often, maybe it is because they don’t have the chops to proceed. Maybe they just suck.

Failure teaches you what doesn’t work. It doesn’t always teach you what does work. You may do something wrong, but if you adjust, you haven’t failed.

If you have truly failed, you need to not only analyze what went wrong, but why you didn’t see it in time. Why didn’t, or couldn’t, you adjust.

Most likely, you need help to learn the right way. Depending on the failure, you may need to add someone on your team.

Better yet, think on your weaknesses, we all have them, and act to get people on your team who can compensate.

Failure is to be avoided. It is a bad thing. Failure isn’t the end of the world, but if you decide that you are willing to fail, you likely will.

11 thoughts on “Failure is Not a Positive

  1. I think this depends a lot on what you mean by failure. I’m no advocate of the “fail fast” mentality, but what I really think what this means is “pivot” http://www.startuplessonslearned.com/2009/06/pivot-dont-jump-to-new-vision.html
    … and yet, I’m not even convinced that pivots are enough. Repeated failure is really bad.
    Doesn’t wanting to avoid failure lead to fear of failure?
    I think if you’ve calculated that what you’re trying to do is the right thing to do, then you should do it. If you fail, then you knew you were right to try. But if you failed and you didn’t even know whether it was the right thing to do, then that’s failure.
    Of course, I didn’t calculate if this comment was the right one to make.

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  2. I like the post because I agree that the pundits almost make it seem as if one should *pursue* failure. However, outside of book titles and blogposts, I don’t think this happens in the real world. No one I know or have consulted for actually thinks it’s a good thing. Everyone knows failure hurts, and there’s always a fallout of some sort. That said, the idea of stagnation is what the pundits are trying to avoid…but the pendulum shouldn’t shift in the complete opposite direction either, where folks are just chucking things against the wall. There is indeed a cost for failure, and it should be avoided, just not at the expense of any innovation at all.

    BTW, I love this line: “Failure teaches you what doesn’t work. It doesn’t always teach you what does work.” Very important point to note.

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  3. Pie, I belong to those who value failure.

    http://isismjpucher.wordpress.com/2011/10/24/the-value-of-failure/

    And I am not the only one. Much greater minds than me said the same thing. Targeting and demanding a ‘failure free’ of anything is doing two things: First it usually involves going to extreme length to try and ensure that something will not fail. it is very expensive often more expensive than fixing a problem. Second, once things are error free they are considered to be perfect. We see this problem in IT with ‘Never touch a running system.’

    It is this mindset that kills innovation. If you never try anything new you might not fail but then you are also stuck and the world will move on without you. You will just fall of the back of the moving truck.

    Lastly the demand for an error free design also contains a kind of arrogance that just our rationality is capable of. There is a good reason that we build today not ‘fault-free’ systems but ‘fault-tolerant’ systems. And to the error free design you would most probably only get by fixing a lot of mistakes.

    The last point in this is that error free is inhumane. I would never demand it from anyone. What I demand from my people is that they learn from failures and do not repeat them. I do not punish anyone for a one time mistake no matter how stupid. But I do not tolerate ignorance and repeated carelessness. Obviously there are areas where it is important to take all possible steps to avoid failure to reduce human loss of any kind. But still, Space Shuttles exploded and commercial planes crash and thousand of people die each day in traffic. But with all we learned it is a lot less than it used to be. Failure taught us that.

    But I agree that it is strange that the country from which language the word TSUNAMI stems, had nuclear power plants that were never verified to withstand one. That is the kind of failure that should not even happen once. They still will …

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  4. Ted Coine says:

    I see the problem as being the endemic risk-averse world of the vast majority of businesses, especially our largest. So this is almost a semantic difference: what do we mean by “failure,” anyway?

    In any leader’s mind, and extrapolated throughout the healthy org, two things are needed at once: an almost reckless eagerness to make small errors, learn quickly, and continue slogging forward, and an absolute abhorrence of any failure of slip-up whatsoever. This is completely untenable to the small-minded, but hopefully that describes someone else, preferably our competition.

    Great post. I’m glad I found your blog.

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  5. Count me also as one who disagrees with your overall position. Learning requires experimentation, and experimentation necessarily requires trying approaches that do not succeed … they fail. You can not have innovation, and you can’t even have learning without along the way failing.

    http://social-biz.org/2011/10/24/failure-is-essential-to-knowledge-work/

    However, we all know that the discussion of “Failure is Good” is really a way of grabbing attention because, hey, we all know failure is bad … how can it be good? let me read the article.

    I can see the point of your post: “Failure without learning from it is bad.” Yes, I can agree with that. The only point of experimenting is to learn, and if you don’t learn then you might as well shut yourself in a dark room and avoid all interaction with anything. Luckily, human being are intelligent and learn.

    The real jist of the “Embrace Failure” movement is to encourage people to not be so fearful of failure that they avoid all experimentation. Failure is really not as bad as it is made out to be, and the benefits of failure include learning what not to do. So, in this sense, the learning makes failure worthwhile. In a very real sense, the only think we have to fear is fear itself.

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  6. Failure should never be part of any goal on any endeavor, it should be avoided but it should not stop progress.

    I agree with Max, I value failure as well.

    I think success at all cost is what really is damaging our society. “Too big to fail” should really be something we learn from.

    In the context of tech, I think that we should expect some level of failure and then correction. Putting value in failure is learning from it, and that is not practiced enough in the professional world. “Postmortems” almost never happen. That is sad, and I think it is because so many people are afraid of the word and taking responsibility. They adhere to the, “nothing should ever fail” mentality and “we always plan for success” is both naive and irresponsible.

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  7. Perhaps it’s fair to agree with Aristotle on this: confidence is the mean between rashness and cowardice.
    You have to educate people who are unwilling to change that they need to take risks; if they fail, it will be painful, but playing it safe is not an option.
    Meanwhile, you still need to remind those who think that failure is ok that actually, it’s not. I think Laurence is making just that point.
    As Logtar says, there’s a lot of shirking responsibility and a lot of naivety, neither of which makes for success.
    Try to be successful, not to avoid failure.

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  8. I respectfully disagree with your perspective.

    Failure can be both good and bad. Designing, creating and learning just aren’t clean processes. The bad kind of failure is of the unnecessary variety. The worst type of failures come from ineptitude.

    When we have access to knowledge, but fail to apply it, then we are inept. When we break new ground in areas where we have no collective knowledge, failure should be expected, even embraced. You cannot equate these two classes of failure.

    You are interested, I have blogged about my perspective on failure at http://www.funnelblog.com.

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  9. Lots of great comments. For those that agree, no response is necessary. For those that don’t, I’ll write a response post. I think that some is a little semantic, but there is some genuine difference of opinion here that I want to explore, once I’m not out-of-pocket.

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