Sunday, October 22, 2017

Redefining "failure"

Success is the exception, not the rule. This idea struck me when reading an article on Wikimedia's blog, The crowdsourcing fallacy, which examines the pitfalls of building a service on the so-called "wisdom of the crowd". The clearest success story in this field is, of course, Wikipedia. If it had been pitched as a commercial project it would never have got off the ground, but the fact that it is the result of an unprecedented level of voluntary public collaboration has built up by far the largest reference work in human history. On paper, the venture was a non-starter, as the article states, "it only works in practice; in theory it could never work”. Its success could never have been planned, as is the case with most success stories. The success narrative of crowdsourcing is very attractive and has lead to many brave ventures, but the post provides a vital reality check: Your crowdsourcing effort will fail, most of the time, because most things fail. And because important things are hard.

We all love success stories. They can inspire us to study, work hard and persevere. At conferences we are fed a diet of best practice, projects that exceed expectations or innovative companies that have hit the headlines. We idolise business leaders who made it big and circulate their words of wisdom in the hope that some of the stardust will touch us. Our increasingly competitive culture is reinforced by countless reality TV shows where the winner takes it all and failure is not an option. To be branded a loser is the worst humiliation you can receive. The problem is that for every winner there must be millions of "losers" and success is the exception rather than the rule.

Of course we can admire and congratulate the successes but we need to look more realistically at failure. The word itself is loaded with prejudice. If success is so rare, then partial success or a lack of success are the norm. Success often comes unexpectedly and cannot always be rationalised. Often it's simply about having the right idea at the right time and getting the right breaks. Equally good or better ideas with equally sound business plans and strategies can sink without trace. Many failures, however, can then form the embryo of future success, so we need to question the use of the word failure; failure on what time scale?

What I wonder about here is that we need to move away from this simplistic categorisation of success/failure or win/lose. Most things we try to do have limited effects and don't usually meet our high expectations. Instead of seeing this as failure we need to see what we can learn from each venture and move on to try a different approach or a new angle. Success stories can give us a vision to aim towards but not getting there should be seen as perfectly normal and acceptable. Too many people today are hooked on the lure of making it big that they cannot be satisfied with anything less. All our efforts are part of a learning process and although each step may not seem to make any kind of impact they add experience and ideas to an iterative process. Even a total failure offers lessons to be learned if we can accept them on that level and not fall into the success/failure trap.

Too much of our education system (and of course society in general) is based on competition and the inhuman belief in the survival of the fittest. We should instead be developing collaboration and problem-solving and this requires that we stop branding activities and people as successes or failures. If learning is the focus of education then failure becomes a lesson learned and success an occasional happy outcome. A new vocabulary and mindset is needed.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Alastair!
    It is really a pity that we are so afraid of "failures", and I am particularly fond of your time perspective. I work as a medical doctor and when reading medical history books, I used to feel sad about the fact that future doctors will laugh at the current methods (which I use) in the same way as we today laugh at some older treatment methods. But, in fact, the sooner they will start laughing - the better - for the patients of the future.
    Best regards,