Failure, Mistakes, and Actual Success

shanghai_building_cs_20090629035740.jpgA month ago, as I was waiting to start my first day with AIIM, I can across several tweets that I felt over-stated the benefits of failure. I decided to write a quick little post on how Failure is Not a Positive on my tablet over my morning coffee.

There were some great comments, but I had little time to respond. I am taking some time now to respond because this is an important topic. First, let me start with my baseline statement:

Failure is bad.

I still stand by that 100%. It should be noted that once you are no longer in grade school, you realize that good and bad are on a sliding scale and are rarely absolutes. Something can be bad and not be the “worst”. Bad in this context refers to the simple fact that if you draw a line in the middle, failure is something to be avoided.

Mistakes versus Failure

One thing that I think is going on is that people are not distinguishing between failure and mistakes. Mistakes happen and are usually recoverable. You can make mistakes and still succeed.

Think of it like war. Each war is composed of battles. You can lose a battle but still win the war. Sometimes you have to risk battle because to not fight may lead to losing the war.

Same thing here. During a project or initiative, you have to move forward. You can change direction, or “pivot”, but you are always moving forward. If you make a mistake, you learn, adjust, and keep going.

This is where Max Pucher and I differ on our viewpoints

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.

He is correct, mostly. Perfect is the enemy of the good. (Voltaire) If you strive to be perfect and mistake free, you will fail. The opposite of perfect isn’t failure. I have run almost no projects that were “perfect”. The one or two that may have been mistake free were as much due to low complexity and a little bit of luck.

According to Max, even Steve Jobs knew the difference between the two and talked about making mistakes, not failing.

When you innovate, you make mistakes. Admit them quickly, and get on with improving your other innovations. (Steve Jobs)

Making a mistake isn’t failure. People need to stop confusing the two. The English language is hard enough as it is.

A Learned-From Experiment is Success

Keith Swenson then chimed in with a great observation:

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.

I agree 80%, give or take. If you conduct an experiment, the purpose is to learn if something works. If it succeeds, GREAT! If not, you still achieved your goal of learning. The definition of the word Experiment carries this out:

an operation or procedure carried out under controlled conditions in order to discover an unknown effect or law, to test or establish a hypothesis, or to illustrate a known law

If you perform something as a test or experiment in the process of innovating, then as long as you learn from the outcome, you have not failed. If you don’t learn anything, then you have a failure which is not good by any stretch of the imagination.

This is true even if the experiment “works”. If you don’t know why it works, you haven’t learned anything and then are unlikely to repeat the “success”. THAT is a failure and it is always bad.

One more thing, it is always important to know going in if something is an experiment or not as that drives both the execution and evaluation of the effort. Calling something an experiment AFTER it has already failed is a failure unto itself.

True Failure Has Consequences

The other comments are worth reading and some include links to supporting posts. There were comments on both sides, but I don’t see the need to argue with those that agreed.

When you look at real failure, not mistakes and not experiments that didn’t “work”, but projects/initiatives that never completed or that didn’t achieve their goals, you see a large cost.

  • Technology: People blame the technology. The products and technology involved are branded in people minds as not being any good. This is rarely the case but has long ranging effects. I knew one Director of IT that would never consider one major vendor because of one failure in a past life. Thing was, that vendor actually had the ideal solution. That failure cost two organizations.
  • People: When you role out a new system, you are putting reputations on the line for the leaders and departments involved. Failure leads to people to distrust the next effort from the same leader and/or group.
  • Money: Consultants, licenses, hardware, and employee time all cost money.
  • Time: What could have been achieved in that same timeframe? If you fail after nine months, you have to start over but now your competition has moved forward in that same timeframe.
  • Process: When the new way fails, the old way becomes more entrenched. The belief that it is unique or difficult to replicate becomes more engrained.

You can’t be afraid of failure or you will never do anything. On the flip side, you need to work to avoid it. Put together a plan that has a chance to succeed. Track, manage, and mitigate risks. If it looks like success is no longer possible, go ahead and fail early because it has less costs.

The more open you are to accepting failure, the more self-fulfilling the prophecy becomes for you.

8 thoughts on “Failure, Mistakes, and Actual Success

  1. I totally agree with you. You are making a point of choosing different wording, no more. I did not chose the word failure. Many others pointed to the value of failure (mistakes, errors, disappointments, trials, learnings) ….

    Failure is not bad. Failure is normal. Success is not good. It is a short term perspective and individual opinion. There is no absolute of good or bad in the universe. When you optimize a process and fire a hundred people it seems good, but ask those who got fired. When I die it may be bad for me or a few others, but it is not bad for the universe. It is actually good.

    There is no learning without failed experiments. All else is splitting hairs. Period.


    • Max, you had me until you said “Success is not good.” People may argue about whether or not something was a Success, but by definition, it is good. If it isn’t good, it isn’t success.

      Failure is bad, but not necessarily catastrophic. It is a sliding scale and at some point something can be classified as a failure.

      I would say that Failure is not the absence of Good and Success is not the absence of Bad.


      • My point is that not allowing failure means to stagnate. Well, sometimes thats what people want and if you are trying to manufacture a million identical widgets then you better keep your stuff within spec.

        Success is not good by default. Hitler was successfully killing millions of people. Was that good? The problem is one of perspectives. The surgery might be successful and the patient still die. The surgery might fail and therefore the patient had surprisingly a few more years to live anyway. The banks make huge profits (success!), the politicians get elected by running over budget (success!) and the EU might fail because of it.

        A failed suicide will be seen positive by most people. And so on and so on …


      • You can allow failure. Doesn’t mean that failure is good. The goal is success. If failure happens, it happens, but that isn’t the goal, nor is it good.

        Wow, pulling a Nazi analogy out. Haven’t seen that since John Stewart last lampooned Fox News.

        Success for some is almost always bad for someone else. If you launch a new product and it triples your revenue, it is successful. For your competitors, it is a bad thing. For you, it is good. Are you going to measure your success on their opinion? No. When one measures Success, or Failure, as either good or bad, you have to measure it from the perspective of the person executing the plan, which is hopefully you.

        When talking about Failure and Success, we should always be talking about the perspective of those creating and executing. That is the data that matters.


      • To close the debate: I did say it is a matter of perspective. Who chooses the perspective? Whoever looks at this at whatever time and in whatever context. You demand that it should be taken only from those who intend to succeed. That is an arbitrary choice but still a valid one. You chose to call it a success and I chose to call it a limitation of potential.

        We are both right because we are free to chose our perspectives.


  2. All else equal, I prefer success to failure; however, all else isn’t always equal. Failure can be preferable to throwing good money after bad or never trying at all. Some may prefer a well-publicized, rewarded failure to a poorly-publicized, punished success. Without clearly-defined criteria, the subjective failure is more political construct than constructive measure.


  3. Robin east says:

    Laurence, first of all congratulations on the new job!

    I think I agree with much of what you said in these recent posts. I don’t have enough time to go into depth on the subject but what I would say is that it’s a good idea to try and turn activities, initiatives or whatever into things that might turn out to be mistakes rather than failures. I’m passing I would say that this is one of the key insights of agile approaches to projects- a fail fast setup. This maybe where the confusion over failure comes in as it involves the word fail rather than mistake.


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