New Yorker commandments


This week marked my 6th anniversary of my blogging on the subject if failure. I quickly added the subject of ‘Leadership and Management’ which shared the common theme of approaches to risk, and relatively recent years have seen the emergence of other specialised sub-topics like ‘Dream Bubbles’ and ‘Black Box Complexity’.

After all of this time and hundreds of explorations, I thought I would take a somewhat expanded perspective beyond the regular anecdotes, quotes and illustrations. What are the common themes and

dynamics that emerge? Not an exhaustive and extensive list, but a distilled and condensed one. What is the core of embracing failure? Without such distinctions, it becomes awfully easy for people to mistakenly construe that I am advocating that all failure is good failure when it clearly is not. So what distinguishes a ‘good’ failure from ‘bad’?

I first contemplated this question at David Hillson’s address ‘Defining Failure’ section (slides 19-22). Slide 21 described failure with a bit of a brainstorm of characteristics, which Slide 22 attempted to categorise it [I think other attempts are more comprehensive]. But, I was wondering more about the dynamics than the definition of failure. Something more akin to Kim Cameron’s Laws of Identity.

So appropriately numbered for the anniversary, I present Bruce’s ‘6 Laws of Failure’…

  1. Failure hurts – For all of the collateral benefits to failure, by its very definition, failure is not what we primarily want. And the disappointment and deprivation of not getting what we set out for hurts.
  2. Things and People aren’t ‘Failures’ – Failure only describes an outcome that is contrary to desired result in some way. Calling a thing or person a ‘failure’ is a semantic misapplication that might be effective in a poetic sense, but not in a rigorous analytical treatment.
  3. Thou Shalt Learn From Failure – All Failures are learning opportunities and not learning from them neglects their most basic and straightforward benefit. Not just intellectual lessons, but character building internal lessons.
  4. Fail in Preparation not in Execution – The best time to fail is in preparation for something, not the execution of it. In business, preparation is design and R&D, not selling or customer service. In sports, preparation is training, not competing. Amy C. Emdmonsen writes in her HBR piece “The slogan ‘Fail often in order to fail sooner’ would hardly promote success in a manufacturing plant.”
  5. Failures have Limits – Muscle failure, not heart attack. Skunk works, not ‘bet the business’. Wrong phone numbers, not small children dying (alluding to Julie Bick’s story). This law was inspired by Lead Academy participant Edward Ibberson from Chipping Campden Baptist Church who commented “There are failures and then there are failures.” In the HBR issue on failure, UPS CEO Mike Eskew talks about ‘No Fail Zones’ where failure is not tolerated (in UPS it was the customer experience). Apollo 13’s rescue is the most famous ‘Failure is not an option.’ It didn’t mean that failure is never an option…just in this situation.
  6. Only Real Truth is Failure – A bit philosophical, but I am referring here to Karl Popper’s postulate that forms the foundation of the scientific method – things can only be ‘disproved’, but never ‘proved’. ‘Proof’ is simply a temporary state that exists before being disproved. This law is perhaps a bit less practical to daily living (where we carry on operating with many well founded assumptions, such as the plane will not fall out of the sky), but an important inclusion, nonetheless, to maintain our humility in understanding the world we live in.