Musing About Failure

The other night I found myself talking with a couple of colleagues about a topic that catches my attention a lot lately: how we deal with failure. We were gathered around a tiny table at a local sushi joint having just failed to convene a board meeting of a local agile networking group. In fact, as members emailed in their regrets through the day—almost right up until the start time, we found ourselves without a quorum to consider the agenda. As a group, we had planned for several weeks to get together and review the outcomes of a meeting last August during which we had reviewed the group’s historical and future purpose. As a group, we claim to serve this larger professional community, but, due to a number of late breaking events and priorities that emerged in the interim, we failed to follow through for them.

Last month I was at a workshop on change management which was focused around theories propounded by Virginia Satir. During the week, neurolinguistic programming was cited as a source of techniques for changing the values of others. That reference resulted in me reading the Wikipedia page on NLP, which brought me to a very interesting paragraph:

Clinical psychologist Stephen Briers questions the value of the NLP maxim—a presupposition in NLP jargon—”there is no failure, only feedback”.[99] Briers argues that the denial of the existence of failure diminishes its instructive value. He offers Walt Disney, Isaac Newton and J.K. Rowling as three examples of unambiguous acknowledged personal failure that served as an impetus to great success. According to Briers, it was “the crash-and-burn type of failure, not the sanitised NLP Failure Lite, i.e. the failure-that-isn’t really-failure sort of failure” that propelled these individuals to success. Briers contends that adherence to the maxim leads to self-deprecation. According to Briers, personal endeavour is a product of invested values and aspirations and the dismissal of personally significant failure as mere feedback effectively denigrates what one values (italics mine). Briers writes, “Sometimes we need to accept and mourn the death of our dreams, not just casually dismiss them as inconsequential. NLP’s reframe casts us into the role of a widower avoiding the pain of grief by leap-frogging into a rebound relationship with a younger woman, never pausing to say a proper goodbye to his dead wife.” Briers also contends that the NLP maxim is narcissistic, self-centered and divorced from notions of moral responsibility.[100]

When I was a senior in college, I stumbled into the field of economics. Had I stumbled into it sooner, I would probably have declared a major in economics. As it was, I simply took every econ class I could fit into my schedule while my funding held out. This resulted in a minor in economics, and caused me to have a very nasty failure experience. I no longer remember the professor’s name, but I remember the key lesson he harped on every day in that intermediate microeconomics class: Failure will be a part of your life, and you’d better learn to deal with it. I, your professor, am going to assist you in learning this lesson by failing virtually every student in this class.

There weren’t a lot of choices at that school when it came to choosing a professor from which to take intermediate microeconomics. Fortunately, I had not declared a major in economics, accounting, or finance. If I had, I might have been as crushed as the straight-A econ students in their final year who sat in that class and studied their brains out trying to get another A. I got a D—and I truly hated that professor. His “lesson” backfired; what he taught us was to hate him, not to deal with failure. And, we were, of course, impotent in our ability to challenge our grades with the administration.

Many years later, I realized that, in a twisted way, his heart was in the right place. We don’t deal with failure well. We hide it and cover it up. And, though the agile community prattles on about the value of failure and how it is such a rich source of learning, when it comes to looking at agile adoption failures, most of its constituents seem to look the other way or scorn their peers with, “Well, you obviously don’t know how to do it right or you wouldn’t have failed.”

Brene Braun’s writing (and speaking) on daring greatly and dealing with shame are instructive here—if occasionally a bit maudlin. She’s grappling with an interesting and important problem, and I’m all for it if it doesn’t contribute to the next fashion being that we will all be trotting out our deepest, darkest, most embarrassing personal failures for the entertainment of the world and massaging them before an audience.

During the Dot Com era, having been part of a company that was a spectacular failure—especially if you were in the nominal leadership team—seemed to be a selling point in picking up that next leadership position in a dot com or software company. Unfortunately, as we all learned, many of these veterans of spectacular failures had learned more about repeating them rather than preventing them.

I don’t think it’s useful to put people into positions where they must experience failure. Failure will be experienced by everyone just about as often as it needs to be. What is missing—pretty much everywhere in our culture right now—is the ability to spot failure and work with it. Recovering from it is part of that, and that’s an emotional and social as well as a learning process. But truly understanding the case in hand and why reasonable people took the actions and made the decisions they did is also quite important. Considering the missed information, the unfortunate interpretation of information, and the gaps in skill or judgment without wholly condemning the participants is important.

Stephen Briers’ highlighting of the value of failure above is interesting. There is something about facing our own haggard face in the mirror and acknowledging our shortcomings that is valuable. To have seen failure up close, to have inhabited it, and then to have taken away what was of value—what William Blake calls “experience”—is part of growing up. Without that, perhaps we are condemned to be innocents, forever unrealized, blithely repeating our errors until stopped, however that stopping might occur.

Showing 2 comments
  • Ian

    So… What became of the local agile group? How did they deal with their failure?

    Thx, Ian

    • Jean Richardson

      You know, Ian, that’s nearly how I ended this post, and maybe I should have followed through on that.

      So, here’s what happened: The group’s membership changed. And, the group realized two things. First, in our metro area, traffic has worsened to the extent that getting together face-to-face is harder and harder, and we all have busy lives with lots of personal, family, and professional changes going on all the time. We have to have a structure that accommodates that. Second, seeing each other face-to-face is where we build community most effectively among ourselves. So, we’ve been working at getting better at meeting online, typically using Google Hangout, and we’re making progress there. Also, we have a standing meeting every odd-numbered month–same time, same place–for ninety minutes. And, we make it worth our while to show up because the substantive issues we need to discuss have already been worked on our web-based planning board. We see momentum growing in some areas even as one person has to leave due to a baby and a new job; another person is relocating out of the country.

      We also learned that if we don’t do whatever it takes to make time to build the connection we want among us all, we can’t cohere in a way that allows us to serve the broader community.

      On a larger scale, we learned that building community broadly is a key value for us, and we all look for ways to have community building as well as educational events.

      It’s very flattering to know you read my blog . . .

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