To Err is Human, To Fail Divine

I can't remember who turned me on to Happy News, but what a great addition to my Google Reader. If you find yourself getting depressed about the state of the world, check it out. It's real news---no treacly chicken-soup stuff---but with a positive spin.

One recent story talked about a study which shows that failure is a better teacher than success. Now that's something a lot of us already know, but to recap:

While success is surely sweeter than failure, it seems failure is a far better teacher, and organizations that fail spectacularly often flourish more in the long run, according to a new study by Vinit Desai, assistant professor of management at the University of Colorado Denver Business School.

Desai's research, published in the Academy of Management Journal, focused on companies and organizations that launch satellites, rockets and shuttles into space – an arena where failures are high profile and hard to conceal.

Working with Peter Madsen, assistant professor at BYU School of Management, Desai found that organizations not only learned more from failure than success, they retained that knowledge longer.

"We found that the knowledge gained from success was often fleeting, while knowledge from failure stuck around for years," he said. "But there is a tendency in organizations to ignore failure or try not to focus on it. Managers may fire people or turn over the entire workforce while they should be treating the failure as a learning opportunity." [emphasis mine]

Good stuff, but I sat up and took extra notice at this bit:

"Despite crowded skies, airlines are incredibly reliable. The number of failures is miniscule," [Desai] said. "And past research has shown that older airlines, those with more experience in failure, have a lower number of accidents."

I started thinking about our little church, almost 100 years old. They've had their share of failures over the years. Yet through it all they have survived. That longevity gives us a tremendous leg up; if we were to take a great risk and fail---even fail spectacularly---I'd like to think we have enough history to know that there is much more "to us" than one particular failure. Of course, there is an unfortunate paradox at work as well---the older an institution is, the more set in its ways it can be. It seems one of the tasks of leadership is to help an organization live into the gift of longevity as a foundation for risk, rather than a plateau on which to become complacent.

There might be some middle ground with this failure business. A few summers ago I was speaking with a man about his trip to Boy Scout camp with his son’s troop. “Well, how was it?” I asked. “Great,” he replied, and told me about the guiding principle for the week’s activities, a concept called “managed failure.”

The idea is to set the bar high for the boys, exposing them to tremendous challenges, giving them the training and equipment and support they need, and then letting them succeed, or fail, knowing that big successes are that much more gratifying, and in failure comes great learning. The father told me that his son had been doing a metal-working project when a piece of metal had chipped off and flew into his face. I gasped, but the man said quickly, “No no no, but you see? He was fine. He was wearing protective gear. That’s why it’s managed failure!”

I’ve been looking for references to this idea elsewhere and haven’t come up with much—but it seems like something for organizations to pay some heed. Most sessions (church councils) I know, given their druthers, would like to know ahead of time whether an idea will work. Failure is “not an option,” to use the cliche. The problem is, some ideas look great on paper but bomb in reality. Other ideas seem kooky but turn out to be transformative. A culture of experimentation, of “managed failure,” might make room for the kooky-yet-God-inspired options.

Have you failed spectacularly lately?