Failure IS an Option

"Failure is an option here. If things are not failing you are not innovating." – Elon Musk in 2005 at the outset of his Space X venture

Happy Birthday Elon Musk! Musk seems like a modern icon of success having pioneered new technologies and new marketplaces. He has achieved the rare accomplishment of leading revolutionary companies which transformed their distinct industries. Steve Jobs’ SIC brace was founding Pixar which transformed entertainment, and Apple which transformed computing. But Elon Musk has pretty much achieved an industry hat trick transforming finance (PayPal), automobile (Tesla) and aerospace (SpaceX).

If you had any question about his embrace of failure along the way, check out the video (above) of launch failures assembled and published by SpaceX itself. And yet this parade of failures has led to one of the most successful commercial space launches in history – 60 Starlink internet satellites put in orbit by a Falcon 9 rocket on the 3rd of June. Lori and I were a couple of the millions to stared into the starry night to watch the eerie “space train” of pinpoints of light marching across the summer night sky.

And to top it all off, Elon recently joined the new season of “Rick and Morty” in a bit of fun-poking at his expense.


Embracing Changing Your Mind

Gapingvoid - agony of change

  • Ch-ch-changes / Turn and face the strange” – David Bowie

One of the most essential and most difficult skills in embracing failure is the ability to change your mind.

Seth Godin describes the challenge in his post What does it sound like when you change your mind?:

  • “It took me eighteen months to change my mind. Actually, that’s not true. It took me about five minutes to change my mind, after eighteen months of being wrong. I still remember how it felt to feel that flip switch in my head. This is one of the assets of youth, and something that’s worth seeking out and maintaining. That flip, the ability, when confronted with a world that doesn’t match the world in your head, to say, ‘wait, maybe I was wrong.’ We’re not good at that. Science brings us overwhelming data about the truth of washing hands before surgery, of the age and origin of species, about the efficacy of placebos, and the natural instinct is push those facts away, rather than find that moment where were can shift our thinking. If you needed to, could you argue passionately for that thing you don’t believe in today? Could you imagine walking over to the other side of the new argument, to once again hear that sound? That’s the essential skill of thriving in a world that’s changing fast.”

A great example of mind changing is Latif Nasser’s TED talk “You have no idea where camels really come from” sharing the story of how camel bones were found in the Arctic…

  • “But at any moment, you could uncover some tiny bit of evidence. You could learn some tiny thing that forces you to reframe everything you thought you knew. Like, in this case, this one scientist finds this one shard of what she thought was wood, and because of that, science has a totally new and totally counterintuitive theory about why this absurd Dr. Seuss-looking creature looks the way it does. And for me, it completely upended the way I think of the camel. It went from being this ridiculously niche creature suited only to this one specific environment, to being this world traveler that just happens to be in the Sahara, and could end up virtually anywhere.”

Godin refers to this cognitive reset ad “the flip” – The flip is elusive:

  • “For the rest of us, though, the flip isn’t something that happens at the first glance or encounter with new evidence. This doesn’t mean the evidence doesn’t matter. It means that we’re bad at admitting we were wrong. Bad at giving up one view of the world to embrace the other. Mostly, we’re bad at abandoning our peers, our habits and our view of ourselves. If you want to change people’s minds, you need more than evidence. You need persistence. And empathy. And mostly, you need the resources to keep showing up, peeling off one person after another, surrounding a cultural problem with a cultural solution.”

A common refrain in the coronavirus commentary is that the pandemic "changes everything”. Maybe that will include a number of minds.

The Skills of Failing

YouTube can teach you everything from how to play the guitar to how to exercise with poodles. And now you can get a masterclass in how to embrace failure from no less than Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School, one of the earliest and most prominent advocates of embracing failure. She now has HBS Review video which can enhance your failure skills. Specifically, she talks about 3 types of failure skills:

  1. Detecting Failure
  2. Analysing Failure
  3. Producing Intelligent Failure

Edmonson implies that there really aren’t different “types” of failure, just different “scales” of failure (from small inconsequential things to major loss of life). The skills applied are the same, just the stakes are different:

  • · “Here’s the dilemma. Most managers understand logically that it is important to learn from the failures that do occur. At the same time, they worry that if they are open and accepting of failures, they’ll create a sort of ‘anything goes’ atmosphere where there’s no high standards and people can perform at pretty much any level they want and that’ll be fine. That’s a false dichotomy…That would be a true worry in a world where in advance we could know exactly what to do and how to do it. And those who didn’t do it should certainly be held accountable for not doing it precisely right. In reality, in the workplace that we now face, a minority of work falls into that category. Most work is of the kind where there are certain uncertainties, there’s lots of novelty, there’s lots of need for creativity and new ideas. And it’s a given that some portion of the new work will go wrong.”

She highlights 3 key strategies for embracing failure:

  1. Frame the work properly – safety QA versus entrepreneurial R&D
  2. Embrace messengers
  3. Establish structures and process for learning

Embracing Young Failure

Dangerous thing

International Childrens Day today. In this age of helicopter parenting, “failure” seems like the last thing ambitious parents want for their children. In addition to the several previous posts about youthful embrace of failure, here are a few added excerpt for the day:

  • Embracing Losing “Trophies were once rare things — sterling silver loving cups bought from jewellery stores for truly special occasions. But in the 1960s, they began to be mass-produced, marketed in catalogues to teachers and coaches, and sold in sporting-goods stores. Today, participation trophies and prizes are almost a given, as children are constantly assured that they are winners. One Maryland summer program gives awards every day — and the “day” is one hour long…Po Bronson and I have spent years reporting on the effects of praise and rewards on kids. The science is clear. Awards can be powerful motivators, but nonstop recognition does not inspire children to succeed. Instead, it can cause them to underachieve…By age 4 or 5, children aren’t fooled by all the trophies. They are surprisingly accurate in identifying who excels and who struggles. Those who are outperformed know it and give up, while those who do well feel cheated when they aren’t recognized for their accomplishments. They, too, may give up.” – The New York Times “Losing is good for you
  • Embracing Not Yet – “’I heard about a high school in Chicago where students had to pass a certain number of courses to graduate, and if they didn’t pass a course, they got the grade "Not Yet." And I thought that was fantastic, because if you get a failing grade, you think, I’m nothing, I’m nowhere. But if you get the grade ‘Not Yet’ you understand that you’re on a learning curve. It gives you a path into the future… First of all, we can praise wisely, not praising intelligence or talent. That has failed. Don’t do that anymore. But praising the process that kids engage in: their effort, their strategies, their focus, their perseverance, their improvement. This process praise creates kids who are hardy and resilient.” – Carol Dweck TED, “The power of believing that you can improve
  • Embracing Danger – “With kids, if you strip risk out of their lives you do them a disservice, because the truth is, the world is full of risk – in business, relationships, everything. You empower your kids when you teach them how to manage risk, how to cope with it.” Bear Grylls, Sunday Times “Best. Dad. Ever!” (the book at top outlines 5 “dangerous” activities for kids to do including playing with fire, crossing town on public transport, dropping from a high place, sleeping in the wild, and taking apart an appliance)


Embracing the Suck

Embrace the Suck

  • “No plan survives first contact with the enemy” – Brent Glesson

A good interview with the author of “Embrace the Suck” book title by Brent Gleeson. The title references a saying from the Marine Corps and the interview and book are full of examples taken from the military. Two of my favourites were:

  • The more we try to avoid the pain and suffering in our lives, the worse we are for it.” – Brent Glesson
  • Do something that sucks every day.” – David Goggins


    Embracing Anchors

    Naval Academy anchors

    One of the commencements virtualized by the coronavirus crisis is the US Navy Academy’s at Annapolis, Maryland who have their own tradition of embracing failure at these ceremonies: “The Anchor” This answer in Quora provides an insightful description of honour of graduating dead last at Annapolis:

    • “Traditionally, the class pitches in for an ‘anchor fund’ – it was a dollar per person when I graduated – that goes to the anchor man upon graduation. With around 1000 graduates per class, it’s a nice chunk of change. So it leads to a weird little competition of sorts among the dozen or so Mids who are close to the bottom of the class; do poorly enough to finish dead last, but well enough to graduate. The anchor man usually gets a standing ovation during graduation from the rest of the class, which confuses the spectators because it’s not announced or otherwise annotated. But his classmates know. Just a little subversive celebration. After all someone has to be last in the class. And it’s sort of like finishing last in the Boston Marathon – there’s plenty of pride just in completing the task.”

    Congratulations to all the graduating midshipmen especially the anchor.

    Top 10 Commencement Addresses Embracing Failure

    Sorkin commencement

    My nephew Max was one of millions of university students celebrating their 2020 commencements virtual (his included) a virtual showcase of his final project (furniture made from recycled waste coax cable). Commencement season is a regular opportunity to explore the theme of “embracing failure” as a counterfoil to this celebration of success (others include “Change the World”, “Don’t Give Up” and “Work Hard”). As such, commencement speeches have regularly featured here. So, for all the virtual graduates, here is a collection of my Top 10 Commencement Speeches on Embracing Failure to binge on during pre-employed lock-down:

    1. JK Rowling, Harvard University
    2. Conan O’Brien, Dartmouth University
    3. Steve Jobs, Stanford University
    4. Barney Frank, Harvard University
    5. Neil Gaiman, University of the Arts
    6. Jon Lovett, Pitzer College
    7. David McCullough, Wellesley High School
    8. Oprah Winfrey, Harvard University
    9. Tim Minchin, University of Western Australia
    10. Barack Obama, University of Southern New Hampshire

    Embracing Left Turns Only


    Not many videos have a more failure embracing title than Nickolas Means’ “How to Crash a Plane”. The crash of United Airlines Flight 232 on 19 July 1989 was a paragon of making the most of the hand that is dealt to you. The plane suffered a catastrophic failure which by every analysis should have sent it plummeting to the ground, and yet the pilot found a way to control the plane and even maneuver it to the nearby Sioux City, Iowa airport. The final “landing”, which included a horrific cartwheel of the plane into a nearby field, might have seemed like an ultimate failure especially as 112 died. But astonishingly 184 survived, many walking away from the crash unharmed.

    The heart of the plane’s astonishing survival rate, was a management system introduced by United called “Crew Resource Management”. It set a protocol for “inter-personal leadership, communication and dynamics” which had two primary principles:

    • No Heroes – group cooperation prioritized over individual heroics
    • Everyone Has a Voice – a protocol for gleaning the collective wisdom rather than depending on a single person’s knowledge.

    The presenter Nickolas Means above tells the riveting tale with insightful analysis and graphics. He related these concepts to his audience of tech developer noting that the benefit of the system is not just in short-term crises, but also in building the strength of a team over time:

    • If there is only one dominant voice and it is constantly correcting new engineers on the team, they’re never going to make the mistakes they need to make in order for them to learn the lessons that they have to learn.

    In the end, the flight crew did not fight the failure of their plane, but simply pooled their insights to find the glass half-full as to what parts of the plane still actually worked. It wasn’t many, but it was enough to save 118 souls.

    Chamberlain and Churchill

    Chamberlain and Hitler

    One of the icons of failed leadership is Neville Chamberlain, but fresh examination of archives has revealed that his famous “appeasement” capitulation to Hitler, was actually more of a masterstroke of managing Hitler into a corner and avoiding catastrophe for Britain.

    Robert Harris’ piece “Munich, 1938: Neville Chamberlain’s finest hour” (and his book “Munich”) explores the perspective that Neville’s agreement resulted in Hitler being “trapped by the deal”. In the aftermath, Hitler himself felt Chamberlain’s manipulation sown “the seeds of his downfall”. Harris observed:

    • “[Chamberlain believed that] ‘the people of this country would have lost their spiritual faith altogether’ if they had not seen their leaders striving as hard as they could to avoid another conflict. It would have undercut any chance of peace if he had stood at the Heston aerodrome and announced that he still did not trust Hitler and that the Munich agreement was a regrettable necessity entered into only to buy time because Britain was too ill-equipped to fight. Yet this was the truth.”

    In September 1938 the RAF has a mere 26 fighter squadrons and only 6 had modern mono-planes, but when Britain did go to war a year later, they had 10 times as many. But not only had Chamblain bought time in the fight against Germany (which even then was hazardously close to defeat in the Battle of Britain), but he also earned respect from the anti-war contingent making his ultimate endorsement of Churchill pivotal to providing a united support for the war when declared:

    • In the crucial cabinet battle of May 1940, when the foreign secretary Lord Halifax favoured hearing Germany’s peace terms, it was Chamberlain’s support for Churchill’s policy of fighting that was the decisive factor. He had learnt the hard way that Hitler was not to be trusted; so had Britain. Neville Chamberlain deserves more credit than he has been given for his contribution to our finest hour”

    Instead of be a bumbling appeasement, Chamberlain’s actions were incredibly calculated and outwitted Hitler at every step. From an embracing failure perspective, it was a classic tactical retreat. And may have provided the Management that Britain needed to prevail in the conflict as much as Churchill’s Leadership.

    Unsung Management

    Preparing to fail

    Today is World Management Day. And these days, the world needs lots of great management. People are starting to appreciate the value of good “downside avoidance” during the pandemic crisis.

    I often written that Management is often regarded as the lesser sibling of the more glorified “Leadership”, but it equally as important.

    Maybe avoiding problems is less exciting than gaining results. Maybe avoiding the loss of $100 is less motivating that winning $100. Determining no correlation less exciting than finding a link. But when it’s gone, you then start to miss it…when it’s too late:

    • A hygiene factor is something you miss when it’s gone, but barely notice when it’s there.” – “Valuing hygiene factors

    Good leadership is appreciated in the moment, good management is appreciated in its absence (too many examples during the coronavirus crisis of the moment). One good analogy comes from Seth Godin’s post “Bridges and Tunnels”:

    • It turns out that bridges are monuments and create glory for those that find the resources to build them, there in the sky, for all to see. Those are the two reasons why we end up with more bridges than tunnels. (same is true with work culture and society at large). But tunnels allow all sorts of productivity without calling attention to themselves or those that build them. A tunnel creates progress without changing the landscape. Many times, it’s an elegant solution to the problem for someone with the guts and fortitude to build one.”

    Leaders build bridges, Managers build tunnels” could be another characterisation of the Leader/Manager duality with “bridges” of leadership literally pointing upwards, and the downside averted with good management hidden under the surface.

    Can a Manager be “Inspiring”? That descriptor is more closely associated with “Leadership”.  Some would say the very definition of Leadership is inspiration. But caring, trust, confidence are all sentiments “inspired” by good management.