Sunday, May 15, 2011

Failing brilliantly

Brilliant FailureWhat is failure?  As it relates to life work, how is good failure distinguished from bad ones?  Do good intentions make for brilliant failures?

I’ve had my share of failures, long-term and short.  Most have happened despite good intentions and hard work to avoid them; no easier to endure when they occur, but easier to learn from and avoid in the future.  Recently, I’ve struggled with finishing a book chapter that turned out to be way more work than I ever thought it would be (but, in fairness, it was my first time).  I failed to secure funding for a client (leading to Directors asking if the money had been mis-spent, if I was conflicted, or incompetent, and ultimately to refuse to pay my final invoice).  Too often, my work-life balance fails to allow time (or funds) for people important in my life, creating needless stresses all around.

Every milestone, whether a success or a failure, is an opportunity for discussion, reflection, and learning.  In the corporate world, performance assessments reflected aggregate achievement against last year’s goals.  Now, I prefer to evaluate performance on each task as it passes, how did I do, what was the quality of my team, would I do it again, could I have done better?  Each failure is grist for improvement.

The Dutch prefer to do things right the fist time, so failure carries much more consequence.  In fact, many failed entrepreneurs in the Netherlands never pick themselves up and have another go at it.  So Paul Iske founded Amsterdam’s Instituut voor Briljante Mislukkingen (Institute for Brilliant Failure).  Under the banner “Failure is an option”, he catalogs real business- and life- train wrecks that we can all learn from (Was van Gogh a failure?).  They are inviting submissions for a checklist promoting a Brilliant Failure Attitude built around three organizational themes:

  • Easing off the ´control button´: Control tends to suppress evolutionary, spontaneous processes. The windows of opportunity that arise are left unexplored with no option to capitalize on their potential. To counter this organizations need to examine where they could control less and navigate more.
  • Encouraging the right type of risk taking: many organizations, and employees, tend to play safe, to stay in their comfort zones. As a result they take implicitly or explicitly take at the low end of the risk-return trade off. To counter this organizations need to examine where, and what type of risk taking, they want to encourage.
  • Recognizing the value of, and learning from, failure: many organizations tend to either brush failure under the carpet or punish those responsible. In this respect the brilliant failure attitude is: ´there is no such thing as failure only feedback´. Organizations need to put processes in place to recognize the value of ´failure´ and maximize the learning from this.

They are also casting out for nominees for the 2011 Award for the Best Learning Moment.  An interview with Paul was recently aired on PRI’s World Tech Podcast, where I first came across it, and I like their willingness to encourage a new attitude towards failing, in the spirit of learning, building confidence, and trying again,

…and again.