Everyone embraces failure - this is why

(Cross-posted from LinkedIn. Please connect there to get more like this.)

In recent times wannabe contrarians have embraced their love of failure – often pointing to entrepreneurs who have failed spectacularly, learned their lessons and then went on to great success. JK Rowling may have started it all with her TED talk in 2008, and even the psychologists agree.

It is not so much that failure is a ‘good’ thing.

The simple truth of the matter is that it often does not matter what we do as much as it matters that we do something. Maybe a better title to this piece would have been “The benefit of doing something”.

The sub text is that anything is better than nothing – even if it leads to failure.

There are a few arguments to support this contention:

1.      Law of Unintended Consequences.

2.      Complexity of Achieving Behaviour Change (statement of the bleeding obvious).

3.      Predictable Irrationality of human decision-making.

Summarising all of the above leads to the inevitable conclusion that, for practical intents and purposes, it is near impossible design and deliver a human intervention that involves many people in order to achieve a predetermined outcome.

This is illustrated very clearly with the ‘Hawthorn Effect’:

The experiments took place at Western Electric's factory at Hawthorne, a suburb of Chicago, in the late 1920s and early 1930s. They were conducted for the most part under the supervision of Elton Mayo, an Australian-born sociologist who eventually became a professor of industrial research at Harvard.

The original purpose of the experiments was to study the effects of physical conditions on productivity. Two groups of workers in the Hawthorne factory were used as guinea pigs. One day the lighting in the work area for one group was improved dramatically while the other group's lighting remained unchanged. The researchers were surprised to find that the productivity of the more highly illuminated workers increased much more than that of the control group.

The employees' working conditions were changed in other ways too (their working hours, rest breaks and so on), and in all cases their productivity improved when a change was made. Indeed, their productivity even improved when the lights were dimmed again. By the time everything had been returned to the way it was before the changes had begun, productivity at the factory was at its highest level. Absenteeism had plummeted.

The experimenters concluded that it was not the changes in physical conditions that were affecting the workers' productivity. Rather, it was the fact that someone was actually concerned about their workplace, and the opportunities this gave them to discuss changes before they took place. (Extracted from The Economist – my emphasis)


For example, consider the following ‘failures’:

  • You may want to run an awareness campaign in your company to increase safety awareness – but it results in a rise in complaints about unsafe working conditions.
  • You have a serious talk with your team about discipline and putting in the hours, attending meetings and being on time. Instead of them being negative and feel reprimanded as you feared, they get to clear the air - resulting in positive climate change in the office.
  • Giving people performance bonuses but instead of it being motivating, it raises the sense of entitlement.
  • During an office relocation when everybody had to spend a fair amount of time on ‘housekeeping’ matters and services were disrupted, sales actually increased.

There simply is no accounting for human behaviour. When put under stress some people rise to the occasion and others wilt. When lavished with attention, some avoid the scrutiny and others feel more engaged.

The same logic can be extended to initiatives like:

  • A re-branding exercise
  • A corporate re-structure
  • A merger
  • Decentralising the procurement function

Most readers will be well aware of how corporate warriors will jump through hoops creating business cases, project maps, task forces and the like to develop and implement these solutions.

And then if you are lucky enough to survive the round of retrenchments, a few years on you will find that the re-structure must be undone, and that the acquisition must be sold and the procurement is better off being centralised again.

It may seem like the epitome of bureaucratic waste to do and then undo the same initiatives in a never-ending oscillation.

The simple answer is that there is no right answer to any one of those business/ operations/ management conundrums. Whether a certain function is centralised or decentralised does not matter. Whether the company is going through a ‘specialisation’ stage or a ‘diversification’ stage is just the strategy cycle.

What matters is this: the company is doing something; anything really, as the workers in the Hawthorne factories taught us. Any project will do. Any initiative will energise. Any strategy will do the job of making us feel we are working towards something.

Along the way the project will be more or less successful, but that matters nought, since there was no way to predict the outcome of a complex system anyway. All that matters that we are doing something, constantly engaging with our work and the people we work with.

A little bit of luck will determine whether there are more little wins or little losses adding up to success or failure in the long run.

But that we will not admit to each other. Just delude ourselves that we are in charge and prepare the business case accordingly.