Never Waste a Good Failure

StrikethroughHeader-1By: Peter Bromberg, Associate Director for Public Services, Salt Lake County Library.

“I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.” -Louisa May Alcott

Over the past decade I have observed a continual shift in how many in the business world approach the idea of failure. It has been a shift from viewing failure as something to avoid, to viewing failure as a necessary and valuable step in the process of innovation, organizational learning, and continual improvement.  Government and non-profit sectors seem to be increasingly open to this understanding of the value of failure — an understanding that scientists and design-thinkers have long appreciated.

It is not that failures or mistakes are, in and of themselves, good things.  It is useful to distinguish between good failures and bad failures.  A “bad” failure is generally one that could have been avoided or mitigated with a bit of thought or planning.  Hallmarks of bad failures might include:

  • taking on too much — unrealistic workload for yourself or others
  • having too short a timeline
  • having the wrong people involved, or having a lack of input from key stakeholders or others with needed information, skills, resources
  • not connecting action to a deeper set of values or goals

The most significant hallmark of a bad failure is that the failure is not openly discussed or analyzed.  Any failure can become valuable if there is a debrief around 1) the goal, 2) the actions taken, 3) the rationale for the actions,4)  the results, and 5) the lessons learned.  In the end, it is the unexamined mistake — the mistake we refuse to learn from — that truly warrants the label FAILURE.

mia hamm quote
Image Courtesy of Flickr User: Inspiyr.com — CC BY-ND 2.0

“Good” failures, on the other hand, are those that result from intentional actions, aligned towards clear goals, based on our best thinking and knowledge, and undertaken in a spirit of openness and learning.  Indeed, it is impossible for us to learn, grow, or innovate if we never take risks. Fear of failure, aversion to risk, or an organizational culture that punishes failure implicitly or explicitly, may, in the end, result in the ultimate failure — the failure to adapt to our rapidly changing world.

If you’re interested in further exploring the ideas of “good” failure, and the increasing need for successful 21st century organizations to “fail forward”, register now for, Strikethrough,  the Utah Library Association “Failure” Workshop.

The Schedule:

  • Thursday, February 18, 2016, OPTIONAL reception for keynote speakers from 7:00 p.m.-9:00 p.m. at the City Library.
  • Friday, February 19, 2016, 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. FAILURE WORKSHOPS at the City Library.
  • Saturday, February 20, 2016, OPTIONAL Unconference at the City Library. (We will be workshopping and discussing ideas and situations involving failure), 9:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m.