Taking the Sting out of Failure


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The failure

A couple of years ago I had a workplace nightmare.  I was pushing a big initiative and I needed it to be a success.  I had my boss’s boss on my back and the project was going belly up.  It was all very unpleasant.

There were a few rays of light.  A couple of data points which, if you squinted, really hard, suggested that the project was working.

A man called Pete worked with me at the time.  Pete was a great analyst, he could cut up your data a thousand ways and show you a whole host of things that you had never even considered before. If there was a ray of light in there Pete was the man to find it.

  • I had Pete cut the data by line of business
  • I had Pete cut the data by inception month
  • I had Pete cut the data by regional office
  • I had Pete cut the data by client
  • I had Pete draw development curves, box plots, scatter plots, time series charts and Pareto charts
  • I had Pete rushing around like the proverbial blue arsed fly.

Eventually Pete took me aside and said.  “James, you have to face it, we have spent all this money and it isn’t working”.

I knew he was right.

Oh bugger…

I had to go and fess upI don’t like to admit it when I get things wrong.

It isn’t just me

In 1907 the U.K. Government established “The Court of Criminal Appeal” to investigate miscarriages of justice.  Setting the court up was not an easy task.  According to a paper by Carole McCartney

The Court of Criminal Appeal’s creation has been described as “the product of one of the longest and hardest fought campaigns in the history of law reform.” It took approximately thirty-one Parliamentary bills between 1844 and 1906 before the Court of Criminal Appeal was created, with judges being the most vocal opponents.

There are various reports from the period that reveal that the judiciary did not object to their decisions being reviewed in relation to sentences or questions of law, but that they were clearly very hostile to an appeal system based on errors of fact. Official reports generated from various enquiries into alleged wrongful convictions between 1844 and 1906 show that judges were reluctant to accept that innocent people were convicted.

This attitude of denial contributed to the delay in setting up the court.

Or, to put it bluntly, the judges didn’t like admitting they are wrong either.  And they would have rather not had somebody else pointing it out.

Taking the sting out of failure

We all hate being seen to be wrong.  So we plough on regardless, even when we know it isn’t the right thing to do.  Imagine how much time, money and effort gets wasted because our egos won’t let us admit our failures.

It isn’t the same everywhere.  Some organisations offer a socially acceptable escape route.  A way of letting people admit that things have gone wrong without fear of punishment or recrimination.

Does your organisation take the sting out of failure?  Or are people so scared of the consequences that they plough on regardless?

When I am wrong, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir? ~ John Maynard Keynes

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Image by Graham Milldrum

Republished with author's permission from original post.

James Lawther
James Lawther is a middle-aged middle manager. To reach this highly elevated position he has worked for many organisations, from supermarkets to tax collectors and has had multiple roles from running a night shift to doing operational research. He gets upset by operations that don't work and mildly apoplectic about poor customer service.


  1. From my Tang Soo Do black belt days, a great quote on failure by Bruce Lee: “Don’t fear failure. Not failure, but low aim, is the crime.” If lessons and learning have come from the effort, and if the enterprise supports the initiative involved (even to the point of enabling a revised approach), then coming up short can be seen as steps on the road to success.

  2. Hi James: it appears that your boss’s boss put you in an impossibly difficult spot, and you probably didn’t recognize it until you were neck deep (been there). Managers who don’t build capacity for failure into their business model and operations planning do a great disservice to their stakeholders. I’d call it malpractice. It’s unfair that employees are placed in no-win situations to compensate for that folly, but it happens.

    How employees respond to failing situations depends on their personal values. When it comes to pulling the plug on a project, pivoting, or changing goals, the better question to ask is not ‘what is the right thing to do?’, but rather, ‘how do we get the right thing done?’ Answering ‘the right thing to do’ risks yielding to one’s ego: “be tenacious!” “never give up.” and “we’ve gone this far, so we need to finish the job!” Getting the right thing done requires a different introspection.

    Failure and strategic achievement are inextricably connected. As a matter of course, those who make strategic decisions at companies should not be expected to be magnanimous or charitable. Accepting the possibility of failure should not be pitched as a “socially acceptable escape route.” It’s a business imperative. Organizations that have zero tolerance for failure don’t last long. They are not only too conservative in taking on risk, they ultimately churn talented employees who won’t put up with it.

  3. Michael, maybe I should have worked for Bruce Lee…

    Andrew, I agree wholeheartedly apart from one point… “Organizations that have zero tolerance for failure don’t last long” there appear to be plenty bumping along the bottom. I guess that is one reason why there are so many disillusioned staff.


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