If you can’t recognise failure, you won’t learn from it

Katherine William-Powlett shares her thoughts on innovation and on leadership in the voluntary sector. Katherine no longer works for NCVO but her posts have been archived on this site.

Tim Harford has been doing an engaging tour promoting his new book,  Adapt: Why success always starts with failure.  This was of particular interest to me after the NCVO Fail Slam earlier this year. In Waterstones this Sunday Tim talked about the need for trying lots of things and allowing to fail in small ways in order to have bigger successes later, much as I have discussed in earlier blogs on prototyping.  But what really caught my ear was that none of this is any use if you don’t know you have failed. How do we know if we have failed?

Tim suggested that there were three key reasons why we are not good at even knowing that we have failed.  They have jargony names but are worth some thought.

  1. Cognitive dissonance- not being able to hold two contradictory thoughts in your mind at the same time.  You discard the one that shows you in a bad light.  For example: ‘I am an honest truthful person; I took the office stationery; therefore taking office stationery is not theft.’ This leads to denial of mistakes.
  2. Loss chasing- at vulnerable times you keep on making mistakes rather then admit them: poker players call it ‘going on tilt’; socially it’s digging a hole for yourself. Once something has started going wrong, in stead of stepping back and rationally evaluating, human nature urges us to make more an more mistakes.
  3. Hedonic editing- pulling out and attending to the praise and letting failure get glossed by focusing on the broader success.

Unless you know you have failed, you are unlikely to learn and do something better the next time.

I would add one further reason for not acknowledging ones failures.  The very word ‘failure’ conjures up negative connotations. Even if you are aware enough to accept your failure and announce it, empathetic types tell you that you have not really failed, and critical types attack you for being weak.  Think of the new CEO of Nokia and his famously leaked ‘Burning platform‘ email- a bold admission of failure, attracting much criticism.

Tim pointed out that in West coast USA the mantra is ‘Fail fast; fail often’ whilst in the East it is ‘Too big to fail’. Unless we can all get more comfotable with the word itself and know when we are kidding ourselves, we cannot expect the successes of Silicon Valley.

For more thoughts on failure visit NCVO’s Success out of Failure page.

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