Failure is Underrated

My last blog on the flight from autonomy ended with a promise to take up the question of what you should do if you are a micromanager, even a “closet” micromanger who tries hard not to be. Millions of words have been written on this topic, much of which boils down to supervisors needing to manage tasks while giving their staff the leeway to do their work. Managers should not do the work assigned to others or to spend the day carefully scrutinizing the work of employees, but focus on ensuring that the task is accomplished.  At Xerox many years ago (and perhaps still today) all superviosrs who were to be promoted into the inner sanctum of stock options and bigger headaches were required to attend a several week seminar entitled “Managing Tasks Through People.” The seminar title pretty much conveys the point of the course.  Unfortunately we all know that many supervisors find it very hard to carry out this advice.  There may be many reasons for their inability to step back and let people do their jobs, including a supervisor’s love of the job she used to have, not the more remunerative one she now has. Examples abound of great teachers who end up as mediocre and miserable school principals or talented engineers who become not-so-terrific bosses.  But the biggest reason for micromanagement is almost certainly fear of failure–both personal failure and organizational failure.

Failure is of course not popular in a world that glorifies success, as ours certainly seems to. Despite the teachings of our religious and ethical heritages, most of us probably regard humility as appropriate only for fools and other suckers.  Failure is also the greatest threat to a technological civilization, since bad things happen when airplane engines fail or the power grid collapses.  The premise and the promise of our civilization are that it is “fail-safe.”  However, in our quest to be “fail-safe”  we may become “learning-proof’ because we learn more from failure than from success.  Success is the pat on the back, the assurance that we were right all along and that all we need to do is keep repeating what we did before. Failure–if we recognize it for what it is–tells us that we need to make changes and that we need to step back, think carefully, examine options, question assumptions.  Failure is far more conducive to “thinking out of the box” than success is. Success breeds complacency and the tendency to repeat what works. But if you repeat as circumstances inevitably change, eventually the results will change as well.  If you are in a competitive environment, the more predictable your behavior, the more likely your competitors will figure out how to get the jump on you.

Constant failure, of course, can lead to despair, but constant success is not the unalloyed bliss that its worshippers imagine.  It carries within it the seeds of its own destruction. Once we understand this hard reality, we don’t want to cultivate failure or “bet the farm” on every venture. But we do need to create in our own work lives and that of others a climate of experimentation where failure is accepted as the price for learning.  An annual evaluation system for an organization would be far more useful if it asked for what was learned from experimentation and failure than from a predictable and tedious charting of success in meeting goals.  Besides in an organizational world flooded with data, the big shots usually already know whether  you met your targets or not.

For those big shots who believe that “failure” is the real “f word,” they need to recognize that one of the worst kinds of failure is failure that pretends to be something else, namely success.  That kind of dishonesty can be fostered by a culture that worships success. Ironically, the inability to acknowledge failure can make failure when it occurs far more severe and cataclysmic.  Just ask the Detroit auto executives who for years under-estimated  the threat of low-cost, high quality Japanese competition.  How many of them admitted failure until they had no choice? Perhaps humility ultimately has greater evolutionary survival value for organizations and for the human species. Some of us would not be surprised.






Failure is Underrated

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