Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Sublime Freedom of Failure

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. (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.


John Proffitt said...

You are far too kind, Rob.

And excellent points, as usual. I especially liked the notion of people working hard to give the illusion of great success in order to get an opportunity to form more illusions along the same lines. That does seem to be something the public media universe rewards.

Sounds to me like you could use an, oh... I don't know... "evangelist" to examine and share both successes and failures across the digital public media system.

I am now currently available, by the way. ;-)

BG said...

"Every time man makes a new experiment he always learns more. He cannot learn less. He may learn that what he thought was true was not true. By the elimination of a false premise, his basic capital wealth which in his given lifetime is disembarrassed of further preoccupation with considerations of how to employ a worthless time-consuming hypothesis. Freeing his time for its more effective exploratory investment is to give man increased wealth."
--Buckminster Fuller (Wikiquote)

Julie Drizin/@AIRMQ2 said...

Failure can be liberating and edifying, so long as people are truthful about the experience and share their lessons learned. Failure, like success, is relative, a balance of gains and losses (and I'm not talking about money here). I think when you are talking about public media (media supported by public funds), there isn't a process in our system for providing analysis of what didn't work and why. That kind of critique certainly helps inform entrepreneurs in the commercial sector, but public media seems to be allergic to public unpacking of failed experiments. Perhaps we don't want to appear as if we are wasting taxpayer money.

Brad said...

Sharing (the net's most important virtue) + failure create success. Here's my short story, offered as more encouragement to share failure.

My film, Almost Home (Independent Lens, 2006) enjoyed many repeat broadcasts and great outreach with aging groups. It's topic is a year in the life of a nursing home (more at

But I want and strive to connect with people who don't already agree that we need to change the culture of aging in America, don't watch public television or listen to NPR, don't already know that we all need to learn how to better prepare ourselves for our own aging or caring for a loved one.

Q: Where could we find these people?

A: Where they work.

Problem: Corporate cultures are particular and often impenetrable. It's terra incognita for most public media engagement efforts.

We've partnered with a large company and will soon release a jointly-created curriculum for employees featuring our film. But the road was long, difficult, and the worst — expensive. I had to explain this to foundations, honestly. What cost so much money? Time. What's the outcome? Now we have a prototype product and process to share, complete with our failures.

We are just now gearing up to share the entire story with the public media community. In the meantime, you can check out my thoughts on public media, engagement and filmmaking at

Thanks to Rob for foregrounding the importance of failure.

michvinmar said...

There is this herdish thought that if one of us fails, we all fail, so let's not shine spotlights in dark corners. Recent example: I brought up Vocalo as a "failure" worthy of industry discussion. It's certainly a failure using audience metrics. The idea was quashed quickly. Yet, there are many, many lessons to be drawn from Vocalo.

Rob Bole said...

Thank you for the comments...a personal record for this blog, which is not saying much. (Fail)

I want to make one thing clear though. My post was NOT about public media. I have a pretty long history in working with community development, as well as with public service media prior to my current stint at CPB.

I have seen over and over again the lack of embracing failure as an appropriate foundation for building future success.

This blog post has one connection to public media (John Proffitt's blog), but everything else is non-public media.

So, Julie I am not referencing public media, but rather the whole environment of public service media...NGOs, open gov, etc. And Michvinmar I would not subscribe to anyone's evaluation of Vocalo as a failure. I would say that any project - within public media or without - has elements of failure and success. We just tend to hide the ball "in the dark corners", to mix my metaphors, as a rote reaction to funders, partners and even customers.

However, and as Katrin Verclas at Mobile Active described her FailFaire, that conversation must be had in an environment of absolute trust and respect. Perhaps your attempt to socialize a discussion of the perceived shortcomings of Vocalo's audience growth *failed* because that place of trust and respect was not created?

Katie Kemple said...

Excellent post, Rob. One of my favorite phrases on the subject: "fail faster to succeed sooner."

I agree with Julie that projects benefit from being critiqued. And, I would add that we each have the power to get more feedback, if we ask for it. Whether through surveys, one-on-one calls or group discussions -- there's a lot we can learn when we enter these conversations with an open mind.