In a strange rush of the the last twenty-four hours I have heard about or read about three sublime, elegant, beautiful failures. The honest admission of coming-up-short. And the great thing is that people are owning it and determined that you or anybody else doesn't repeat the same mistake(s).
Success is a public affair. Failure is a private funeral. - Rosalind Russell
In my industry, as well as in this town (Washington DC) failure is not a virtue. This is the reason why I was pleasantly surprised to find a serious conversation taking place about the role of failure. We know that our fear of failing, or perhaps more accurately, letting others know that we have failed, comes from a very personal, emotional place. In failure we are stripped to our elementary school selves where disappointment, rejection and alienation had equal rule with excitement, wonder and joy. Failure is elemental to our emotional state, but can be pretty darn problematic for our professional lives as well. Just ask Elliot Schrage...
However, the three examples that I will cite below potentially signal a new opportunity to embrace the wretched, wrong-headed and sometimes just plain delusional. We should embrace it and celebrate it because at the center of failure is hope and an intention to act. Gandhi said that "man will not be judged by his acts, but his intentions" and that is exactly the reason we should reward those that Act. They are braver than the rest of us.
There is but one cause of human failure. And that is man's lack of faith in his true Self. - William James
I think that this is especially true of large, disaggregated industries or systems. There is a political norm that in these loose group of actors success is the coin of the realm. Actually quite literally as people fight for scarce resources. You succeed (or at least get others to perceive you succeed) you get the money to go on perceiving to succeed. If you are a (repeated) failure your are supposed to be weeded out by the evolutionary process. Done. A reject. A mistake.
However, things are a bit more complicated in these big systems. There is also a counter-trend that is just as logical: herd mentality means that while there may be leaders the rest of us just tend to cluster around mediocrity. One way to describe it is that we are all minor successes, or more cynically all minor failures. The only way to truly fail is fail big. And the rest of the system just gets enough to survive another day.
How are we going to break out of a system of minor successes/failures? Or more importantly how are we going to stop failing redundantly? (If we are going to fail, let's at least be a bit of creative!) In these big systems redundant failing; hitting the same potholes is what wastes resources and promotes uneven successes. We always blame a lack of communication of successes, but I am beginning to believe it might be a lack of communication about failures that is the true culprit.
I think that technologists have something to offer on this subject. Failure is an expected in the life to a programmer. And in fact it is their way of life. Whole systems of work flow are dedicated to the exposure of failure repeatedly in order to identify, isolate and fix. (And if they are really good they document it.) Then they do the failure detection process again, and again, and again. Everything from agile development to quality assurance processes are focused on expecting, managing and even glorifying in human failure.
The failure that I first wrote about above is really programmatic failure, meaning failing of implementation of human processes, rather than technical ones. I think the trick is how public purpose media starts to construct "iterative development, where requirements and solutions evolve through collaboration between self-organizing cross-functional entities." In other words how do we borrow from the technologists the systems to detect and document the programmatic failures?
We don't celebrate failure and we should. Here are three who do and suggest a way forward:
The Painful Acknowledgment of Coming Up Short (Organizational Failure)
Leaving KETC: It Was Just One of Those Things (Personal Failure) - I also have to give huge props to John Profitt to write this blog post. He is amazing...someone hire him now.
FailFaire.org (Organizing Beneficial Responses to Failure)
Let us resolve to illuminate - respectfully, truthfully, candidly - our failures and celebrate those that have the courage to go for it. Anybody want to organize a fail faire for public media? Call me and let's see if we can go big; failure, success or something in between.