who’s afraid of failure?

I know it’s risky to drop the F-bomb on a workplace blog post, but it’s time to confront something we don’t talk about enough.

Failure, with a capital F.

[cricket chirp]

At the 2019 Stewardship Network Conference at Michigan State University, we heard a presentation from Allison Catalano, a Ph.D student at the Imperial College of London. Her bio states that she is “researching how conservation professionals learn from failure. In particular, I am interested in the dynamics of confronting and managing failure from the perspective of individuals, teams, and organizations. I study how cognitive biases and past experiences affect an individual’s ability to discuss failure. I also research how psychological safety and other team learning behaviors influence group response to failure.”

She gave examples from the aerospace, where the harsh mistress of gravity ensures that the consequences of failure are often fatal. Here, the inability to openly discuss failure is not just poor practice, it could mean that someone has to make a phone call to a family explaining why mom wasn’t coming home that night. As a consequence, this industry has a much more developed system of openly discussing failure & learning from it.

The consequences in other fields are perhaps less abrupt, but no less catastrophic.

My field of ecological restoration is still in its infancy in many ways. Never before have humans so thoroughly & systematically disrupted nutrient flows, hydrology, soils, and habitat during industrialization. We then decided that we wanted to piece things together, and we do it mostly with Europeans trained in the university-industrial model without the consult of people who were indigenous to these ecological communities. The goal is to restore the thousands of unbelievably complex, dynamic relationships in a context that is continuing to undergo change.

This is an extremely tall order, and we should not expect the task to be easy. It is a context ripe for many theories and techniques to fail. And the consequences are severe. I’d like to avoid dramatics, especially in assessing the importance of my discipline, but in reality we are talking about nothing less than the health & continuance of the biosphere on this pale blue dot we call Earth.

So many of these crisis in relation to biodiversity are deaths by a thousand cuts: habitat loss, poaching, climate change, and pesticide use. All while field science departments continue their decline throughout academia.

Pondering the consequences of failure inside the Wawona Tree of Yosemite. This Sequoia was tunneled through in 1881 to attract tourists. The bulk of the tree fell in 1969 and the base remains. It was over 2,100 years old.

It’s costly to admit failure. Embarrassing. At businesses, non-profits, churches, and relationships, we prefer to put our best foot forward. Only our closest friends get the unfiltered truth. 

But why should we expect everything, even most things, to succeed? It’s certainly not nature’s way, which is constantly experimenting & running trials to see which combination is best-fit for each context. Fear of failure prevents the opportunity for growth and evolution.

But let’s think through the consequences of indulging in this protective instinct. In the business world, we need to know if a product or service is truly needing the needs of our customers. We need to know early in the design process before lots of resources have been deployed.

In most Christian denominations in the U.S., weekly attendance has been in decline for quite some time. These challenges can be a moment of introspection for communities to question their role in the broader society, their ability to sustain a building or a large staff, etc. Inability to openly admit that changes have happened only delay the day of reckoning and narrow the options available. So many of my friends and family have been faced with this.

Professionally, if we think every project & initiative we do is God’s Greatest Unblemished Gift to the world, we fail to improve & hone our craft, or even to see where our behavior is detrimental to our co-workers or institution.

This blog is already getting lengthy, so let me begin to wrap up by repeating a great maxim that I heard recently. It comes in some variations, and deserves a whole post on it’s own: Fail fast, fail often, fail early, and fail cheaply.

One of my favorite examples of embracing failure is this SpaceX video. SpaceX makes rockets and is trying to start a human colony on Mars. It requires, well… actual rocket science, so one would expect a lot of mistakes. They livestream all of their rocket launches, so if something fails, the whole world sees it in real-time.

With the carnival-like music, this compilation of rocket failures looks like an attack video made by a competitor, not a professionally compiled series of videos by their own communications department!

And yet, what has been the the result of all these failures? SpaceX has revolutionized the space industry and captivated the imagination of millions from the broader public (like myself, if you couldn’t tell). My daughters and I try to watch all the rocket launches online now.

Here is another video, this time of a boat (“Ms. Tree”) catching the nose cone/fairing of a rocket that fell from space:

If that wasn’t enough, they used a massive 3-piece rocket (the Falcon Heavy) to launch a sports car into orbit around the sun on its test flight. They then simultaneously landed two of the pieces upright at Cape Canaveral on live television. The 3rd piece attempted to land on an autonomous drone ship in the ocean (named Of Course I Still Love You). It failed, missing the ship and exploding on impact with the ocean surface.

Volkswagen is pretty well known for their massive moral failure to protect human health by lying about their vehicles’ emissions. It was one of the largest corporate failures in human history, and they were (rightly) fined billions of dollars, now being used to accelerate the transition to electric vehicles. 

Since then, they have become perhaps the leading legacy car company in regards to aggressively pivoting towards electric vehicles. This includes the recent European launch of the ID 3, a vehicle that is expected to sell in significant volumes. Say what you will about the relative “sincerity” of a global corporation making this pivot, but nevertheless, they are doing it.

This advertisement encompasses the entire story in a very poignant way:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMbPINvLp-I

Perhaps they went so low, so publicly that they had no other choice, but such an embrace of their failure is now setting the stage for the next step in their evolution.

The irony is amusing… long-term success depends on embracing failure, while penalizing failure ultimately undermines long-term viability.

In keeping with this spirit, stay tuned to hear of some of my less-than-successful projects (see, I just can’t bring myself to use the F-word!).

2 Replies to “who’s afraid of failure?”

  1. Allison Catalano

    Thanks for your reflections, Adam. Thinking about where failure fits into our lives, how to handle it, how to learn from it, are all things we need to make time and space for. Well wishes to you!

    Reply

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