Failure is an option.

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David* (that is his real name) once lamented that some of his colleagues would rather die than say ‘we’ve stuffed it up.’ Instead, catchy phrases were used to paper over the cracks of reality. We’re not failing. We’re restructuring. We’re not looking at why we’re a mess. We’re conducting an organizational review. We’re not firing him. He’s spending more time with family.

We were once colleagues in a large US company that had a sizable presence in the UK. The CEO at the time gave a speech containing the phrase failure is not an option. There was an audible groan from London, particularly coming from David’s direction.

Failure is an option. And it must be. It occurs so frequently. Surely failure must be talked about as an option if you plan to avoid it.

The danger in being unwilling to say ‘this is wrong’ or ‘we’re off course’ is that you keep wandering off course toward failure. If everyone is obeying a mantra that ‘failure is not an option’ then who is the brave soul that will feel free to say, ‘hey, I think we may be failing!’

If very few possess moral courage and if the consequences of speaking out are punitive, then a dreaded CYA (Cover Your Arse) culture emerges. Covering one’s arse is where the majority of time, energy and creative thinking is spent. A kind of willful blindness sets in and everyone begins to call failure something else, preferably something akin to winning. It is all delusional.

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There are times to put the Yee-Ha speeches aside and get real. All decisions carry risk. Not making a decision is a risk. Not being able to live with the nature of risk can result in analysis paralysis. Not being able to hear about reality can result in surrounding yourself with yes men.

Corrective actions are usually possible and the earlier and quicker you correct, the faster you head toward something that looks like success.

The rational choice is to tell it like it is and then reorganize and change direction. Adjust the sails. Smart bosses appreciate people who speak up.

We need to be able to say, ‘we’ve stuffed it up’ and then start again.

Henry Ford said all this a long time ago: “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”

7 thoughts on “Failure is an option.”

  1. Well done on calling out the “not his real name” bs. ADMITTING failure, as you say, is not the option in these group think fuster clucks. And down they go, in the golden glow of mindless optimism.

  2. I found your article very empowering Cheryl. If our leaders in the workplace admitted to failure, whether due to lack of insight or changed circumstances, we would all also feel less threatend, and more relaxed, if we were to do the same. Don’t we take better decisions when calm and relaxed, and by being allowed to learn from our failures we gain wisdom surely?

  3. One of David’s favourite sayings is a misquote from the bible: “The truth will set you free, but first it’ll make you miserable”. Far better to engage with the truth, even when it hurts for a bit, than endure a long drawn out period of mental anguish dealing with a distorted version of reality.

  4. In software development we are nearly always doing something that we have not done before, or at least not in quite the same way. Stepping out into the unknown makes setbacks and ‘failures’ iinevitable. This level of novelty and discovery is what makes the job worth doing.
    Rather than make futile attempts to eliminate uncertainty (and therefore the possibility of failure), the agile/lean methodologies consider setbacks to be the cost of knowledge gained.
    – Just be sure that each snafu is not just a repeat of the previous one!

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