Failure versus Mistakes

On Tuesday, Maddie and I presented at the Blogworld New York conference, along with Amy Sample Ward from NTEN. It was fabulous to present with Amy. She told great stories about how NTEN actually puts into practice a lot of the ideas we express in Humanize.

One of the examples was NTEN’s comfort with talking publicly about failure. After their recent conference, they actually wrote a blog post listing parts of the conference that did not work out well. Would your organization do that? In public?

Comfort with failure is a critical piece of a human organization. We write about this in the book in the chapter on being Courageous. Courage is ultimately about taking action–moving forward even though you are afraid. One way you enable courage is by maintaining a disciplined focus on learning. We learn from what we do, so we’re not as afraid to move forward. If we fail at something, it will fuel learning, which will enable us to do it better next time. Failure is good.

But during the session, someone asked Amy a question about NTEN being comfortable with making mistakes, and Amy was quick to jump in and clarify. “We don’t define failures and mistakes the same way,” she said. A mistake is when you do something wrong, even though you knew the right way to do it. Failure is when you are trying something new, and you don’t know ahead of time how to make it successful. A typo in a conference brochure is a mistake. It’s not like you didn’t know how to spell the word correctly. NTEN is not “comfortable” with mistakes as it is with failures. They work very hard to eliminate mistakes. (Though I doubt they are the kind of place to ruthlessly punish people for making mistakes either.)

But they are okay with failure. They love to learn from what they are doing. They recognize that if you don’t fail some of the time, then you aren’t pushing hard enough. You aren’t growing. Eliminating failure would mean doing ONLY what you already know how to do. You don’t grow that way.

So take a look at your organization’s culture and be honest with how comfortable you are with failure. How open is your organization with what it is learning from these failures? Are there parts of your culture that need to change for you to enable people to take more chances, be more open about failures, and put a stronger emphasis on learning? This is what leadership looks like in the 21st century. Let’s get to it.

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  1. Jay S. Daughtry
    08.06.2012 at 9:20 am

    I appreciate the distinction being made here, Jamie, between failure and mistakes. Mistakes, however, seem to be smaller in scope and minor infractions of what should have been done. Failures, on the other hand, seem to be far more massive and all-encompassing. I appreciate the concept of transparency and that risk will sometimes lead to failure. But shouldn’t we be looking to minimize mistakes while also striving for success? They’re not mutually exclusive ideals. I’d rather go to a play, a concert, a game, or any event with several mistakes than those that are failures. Try. Attempt. Risk. But calculate and recalibrate in the process. Failures may be avoided, and some may see that you just made a few mistakes along the way.

    • 08.06.2012 at 1:37 pm

      I hear what you’re saying Jay–and I agree that mistakes are a natural part of any endeavor and should be forgiven, to some extent, but the distinction here isn’t just about magnitude. A colossal mistake could create a “failure” of an event, but it’s still a mistake. You knew better, but you blew it. You took all 2,000 of your attendees to a fabulous event on one of the Boston Harbor Islands, and neglected to book a return ferry ride. People will call that event a failure (if they ever get off the island!!), but it’s not like you didn’t KNOW that you needed to get a boat to take people back to shore. You just blew it.

      Similarly, failures don’t have to be all encompassing. You could try an event blog for an association that hasn’t done much social media. It may fall flat and basically be ignored. It didn’t work, but it didn’t take down the whole meeting or anything. The distinction is that failures are more connected to experimentation, innovation, and learning, where mistakes are more about quality and execution.

  2. 13.06.2012 at 9:21 am

    Sorry Jamie, but I’m not convinced. It sounds like a painfully thin slicing of a much thicker issue. Everyone makes mistakes, and it is easier to make mistakes today than ever before considering the increasing novelty and breakneck pace of our work. Some mistakes are simple oversights, some are errors in judgment and some are decisions to try new things that don’t work out. Some mistakes are quite understandable, some are more complicated to explain and others may be head-scratchers. The bottom line is that mistakes will continue to happen even more frequently in the years ahead, and the key question is how we handle them personally and organizationally.

    Failure is an individual and organizational mindset, and it is a choice. An organization can choose to view its mistakes as a form of human dysfunction, or it can choose to view them as a necessary condition for, as well as an invitation to, systemic learning and the building of new capacity. When an organization adopts the former mindset, it treats the people as the culprits and punishes them without seeking to understand how undiscussable problems and unintended consequences contribute to mistakes. Perhaps the person who missed the typo in the brochure did so because he is reviewing way too many documents and cannot meet a zero tolerance standard without help. Perhaps the person who didn’t book the return ferry misunderstood what her colleague meant by, “I’ll handle it.”

    Organizations that innovate through experimentation are choosing to accept the certainty of more and bigger mistakes being made, as well as the reality that outsiders will perceive more and bigger mistakes as failure. But inside the organization, the only failure that matters in the long run is the failure to really learn from the old mistakes so finite resources can be more wisely applied to making new ones in the name of radical value creation.