To Err is Human, To Fail Divine

Happy: The Patron Saint of

I can’t remember who turned me on to Happy News, but what a great addition to my Google Reader. If you find yourself getting depressed about the state of the world, check it out. It’s real news—no treacly chicken-soup stuff—but with a positive spin.

One recent story talked about a study which shows that failure is a better teacher than success. Now that’s something a lot of us already know, but to recap:

While success is surely sweeter than failure, it seems failure is a far better teacher, and organizations that fail spectacularly often flourish more in the long run, according to a new study by Vinit Desai, assistant professor of management at the University of Colorado Denver Business School.

Desai’s research, published in the Academy of Management Journal, focused on companies and organizations that launch satellites, rockets and shuttles into space – an arena where failures are high profile and hard to conceal.

Working with Peter Madsen, assistant professor at BYU School of Management, Desai found that organizations not only learned more from failure than success, they retained that knowledge longer.

“We found that the knowledge gained from success was often fleeting, while knowledge from failure stuck around for years,” he said. “But there is a tendency in organizations to ignore failure or try not to focus on it. Managers may fire people or turn over the entire workforce while they should be treating the failure as a learning opportunity.” [emphasis mine]

Good stuff, but I sat up and took extra notice at this bit:

“Despite crowded skies, airlines are incredibly reliable. The number of failures is miniscule,” [Desai] said. “And past research has shown that older airlines, those with more experience in failure, have a lower number of accidents.”

I started thinking about our little church, almost 100 years old. They’ve had their share of failures over the years. Yet through it all they have survived. That longevity gives us a tremendous leg up; if we were to take a great risk and fail—even fail spectacularly—I’d like to think we have enough history to know that there is much more “to us” than one particular failure. Of course, there is an unfortunate paradox at work as well—the older an institution is, the more set in its ways it can be. It seems one of the tasks of leadership is to help an organization live into the gift of longevity as a foundation for risk, rather than a plateau on which to become complacent.

There might be some middle ground with this failure business. A few summers ago I was speaking with a man about his trip to Boy Scout camp with his son’s troop. “Well, how was it?” I asked. “Great,” he replied, and told me about the guiding principle for the week’s activities, a concept called “managed failure.”

The idea is to set the bar high for the boys, exposing them to tremendous challenges, giving them the training and equipment and support they need, and then letting them succeed, or fail, knowing that big successes are that much more gratifying, and in failure comes great learning. The father told me that his son had been doing a metal-working project when a piece of metal had chipped off and flew into his face. I gasped, but the man said quickly, “No no no, but you see? He was fine. He was wearing protective gear. That’s why it’s managed failure!”

I’ve been looking for references to this idea elsewhere and haven’t come up with much—but it seems like something for organizations to pay some heed. Most sessions (church councils) I know, given their druthers, would like to know ahead of time whether an idea will work. Failure is “not an option,” to use the cliche. The problem is, some ideas look great on paper but bomb in reality. Other ideas seem kooky but turn out to be transformative. A culture of experimentation, of “managed failure,” might make room for the kooky-yet-God-inspired options.

Have you failed spectacularly lately?


9 thoughts on “To Err is Human, To Fail Divine

  1. anne says:

    when our son was a boy scout, his scoutmaster instructed the parents to let the quartermaster (i think that’s what they called the scout whose responsibility it was to purchase the food and ice for a particular patrol for a particular campout) buy ONLY what was on the shopping list devised by the guys in the patrol. he said, if we reminded our son to buy buns, or ice, or milk or whatever, he would always depend on us to monitor the list. if we let him forget the buns or ice or milk, he would only forget it once because he would have lived with the consequences.

    don’t know how to apply this to a session, but i’m sure the principle would apply in some fashion.

    • mamdblueroom says:

      Oh, does it ever apply!

      One of the hidden blessings of being part time is that it keeps in check my desire to jump in and rescue when something goes undone and/or is done “incorrectly.”

      So wonderful to see you today.

  2. anne says:

    i can tell you that one thing your church does VERY well is to greet visitors. i felt very warmly welcomed when i visited this morning. and i was very glad i made the trek to be there!

    i can also say that i was a bit confused about where to enter, so i found someone in the parking lot who escorted me in (and even showed me where your study and the restroom were). maybe there is a sign telling visitors where to go, but i didn’t see it before asking this fellow.

  3. Jeremy says:

    One of the stories my dad told me growing up that’s always stuck with me was about how he would train his younger co-pilots when he was in the Air Force. He would never let them get into more trouble than HE could get them out of, but was more than willing to let them get in more trouble than they could get out of themselves.

  4. Sarah E says:

    “It seems one of the tasks of leadership is to help an organization live into the gift of longevity as a foundation for risk, rather than a plateau on which to become complacent.” My favorite line of many in the piece. Resonates with my own thoughts and the work we are doing, books we are reading, in the Foundations for Christian Leadership cohort group I’m in this year I’m pasting this sentence on my wall.

  5. the local MD says:

    I have failed spectacularly. The most memorable time was in the second year of my residency and someone died. The pilot training analogy is a good one and keeps me constantly on my toes with the residents.

  6. Sarah E says:

    and oh, yeah, I have failed spectacularly and recently and anticipate doing so again.

  7. sko3 says:

    This whole piece reminds me of Girl Scout camping philosophy. The first piece is the idea of “girl planning”–the girls plan everything and they mess up, and the mess-ups are often memorable and involve great learning. (The canoeing trip where the kids forgot cutlery, comes to mind.)

    The other piece is referred to as “natural consequences.” As a leader, you think through what you see as a potential disaster based on either girl planning holes or just kids making bad choices. If the natural consequence does not involve a major safety issue, it’s best to just let the natural consequence happen. So, when the kids forget to put raingear on the packing list for a day hike, and you notice it, you think, “worst case scenario, what happens? they get wet, they whine, they bicker, or they think it’s funny and make jokes” and you just let it happen. If they failed to put water sterilizing tablets on the list, and the worst case scenario is giardia, well, then you step in.

    I have based much of my professional life on what I learned at camp counselor training.

    I think so often with those for whom we are responsible, we want to avoid the consequences (and the whining, disappointment, etc.) and

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