Designing Successful Failures

Henry Petrovski

Henry Petroski’s birthday today, the father of embracing failure in engineering. And possibly the heir to the failure embracing guruship is Amy C. Edmonson. Her oft-cited failure piece in Harvard Business Review offers some how-to’s for designing your undertaking for successful failure…

  • Test normal circumstances (rather than optimal ones)
  • Goal to learn (rather than promote)
  • Reward failure (rather than just successful outcome)
  • Embrace changes (rather than ignoring findings of test)

Safe is Not an Option

Chris Hadfield


  • Do not visualize success, visualize failure. What’s the most probable thing that’s going to fail? We trained for thousands of things that never happened. When things really do fail though, you’ve got a whole armada of possibilities” – Chris Hadfield

Failure is not an option.” How many times has that line from the Apollo 13 movie been trotted out by mini-dictators who think all they have to do it to will something for that outcome to be realised in the maelstrom of real life.

Admittedly, saving the lives of three brave men who the eyes of the entire world are upon is not the time for embracing failure. But in general, even the space programme embraces failure as noted in the article about a more recent catastrophe with Space X – “SpaceX Has Opportunity in Rocket Test That Ended in Detonation

  • “Although a SpaceX prototype reusable rocket exploded in dramatic fashion Friday during a test flight in Texas, the test wasn’t the failure that it might appear — and data gained from the flight may be nearly as valuable as if it had gone off without a hitch, an expert told NBC news. ‘The only ‘failed’ test is one in which you don’t get the information you were seeking,’ said aerospace engineer Rand Simberg, author of ‘Safe Is Not an Option,’”

The Columbia disaster twelve years ago today reminded us that was made these missions heroic was not best laid plans


Best Laid Schemes

Scottish pathway


  • To A Mouse
    “But Mousie, thou are no thy-lane,
    In proving foresight may be vain:
    The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
    Gang aft agley,
    An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
    For promis’d joy!”  - Robert Burns

Most Burns Night celebrations tonight will be reading out Rabbie’s “Ode to a Haggis”, though I’m obviously partial to his failure embracing poem above (that saying, I do enjoy a good haggis).

Life is what happens to you when you are busy making plans. Plans are great for activities, not outcomes. Plan your meals, but not your weight loss. I’m a big fan of dreams. As long as you embrace their failure with equal vigour to embracing their promise.

Seth Godin captures this dynamic in this post "Desire is full of endless distances”…

  • “Just one more level on this game, she says. Once I get to level 68, I’ll be done.  Just one more tweak to the car, they beg. Once we bump up the mileage, we’ll be done.  Just one more lotion, she asks. Once I put that on, my skin will be perfect and I’ll be done.  Of course, the result isn’t the point. The mileage or the ranking or slightly more alabaster or ebony isn’t the point. The point is the longing…The worst thing of all would be if we actually arrived at perfect, because if we did, we would extinguish the very thing that drives us. We want the wanting.”

Individual dreams die every day, but the act of dreaming is eternal.

One Year of Experience 20 Times Over

Gapingvoid - New York dreams


  • “There’s a famous old quip: ‘A lot of people in business say they have twenty years experience, when in fact all the really have is one year’s experience, repeated twenty times.’ It’s not just guys in business who fall into this trap, unfortunately. It happens just as often to people taking a less conventional path.” – Hugh MacLeod

Another year down. But is it another year added?

Hugh expands on this question in his post “How To Be Creative”…

  • “#32. Allow your work to age with you – You get older faster than you think. Be ready for it when it happens. I have a friend. Call him Dan. When I first met Dan, he was a twenty-eight year old aspiring filmmaker, in a one-bedroom apartment down on New York’s Lower East Side, who liked to spend too much time in bars. The last time I saw him, he was a forty-one year old aspiring filmmaker, in a one-bedroom apartment down on New York’s Lower East Side, who likes to spend too much time in bars…It’s sad enough when you see it happen to a friend of yours. When it happens to you, it’s even worse. The good news is, it’s easy enough to avoid. Especially with experience. Suddenly you realize that you’re just not into the same things you once were. You used to be into staying up late all night, going to parties, now you’d rather stay in and read a book. Sure, it sounds boring, but hey, sometimes "boring" can be a lot of fun. Especially if it’s on your own terms. Just go with the flow and don’t worry about it. ESPECIALLY don’t worry about the people who ARE worrying about it. They’ll just slow you down.”

Despite all the things that twentysomethings have yet to learn, I’m still a big fan of hiring junior staff for even demanding, front-line position. They require support and training, but the energy and fresh perspectives that they bring usually more than make up for it. The new breed of Gen Xer’s are renowned for their inflated sense of entitlement, but I’m not sure whether this isn’t just a ‘sign of the times’ thing and not a generational thing. I encounter just as many forty-somethings who feel just as entitled to the big job/paycheck because of their age and experience. While I’m open to the life wisdom that years can add to one’s assets, I’m less impressed with someone’s two decades of domain experience. Partly because in this fast changing world, most specific experience more than 5 years old either repetitive (a la Hugh’s quote above) or simply obsolete. An obsolete experience is worse than no experience. Instead of looking at a problem with extra insight, you look at it with wrong insight (possibly compounded by extra conviction from your experience).

Of course, one key ingredient that turns twenty years of experience into something that add (rather than just repeats or worse yet, subtracts) is the learning factor. Learning from failures. Taking risks especially into the new domains.

May the New Year 2015 bring you many successes from risks well taken, and much growth from failures well learned from.

New Year Fails 5

Marlow Rowing Club Boxing Day Quads


A new year rolls in and once again time to recount my failures of the year. As it happens I did write down a list of about a half dozen things that I wanted to achieve in 2014. The grand total achieved…zero. The good news is that none of them are out of the running. They are all viable candidates for 2015. Have I made progress? Yes.

What do I learn looking back on these aspirations? 1. Some things take longer than you hope at first. 2. I did many things that I never anticipated last January which filled my year with unexpected new growth and experiences.

For example, this time last year. I was happily in my tenth year of coaching rowing for Sir William Borlase’s Grammar School, but an opportunity came up to help out with the new Pararowing programme at Marlow RC. Moving to MRC both introduced me to a whole new type of coaching (more individual with more advanced athletes rather than throng of very young novices) and also got me onto the water rowing myself more than I have been in years (going out in single scull sessions). In fact, I finished the year with one of the most prestigious losses of my sporting career. Our scratch quad lost to Sir Steve Redgrave’s in the final of the MRC Boxing Day Quad’s event. If you are going to lose a race, then lose it to a legendary Olympian.

In 2015, I will take a page from Katie Ledger post “New Year Resolutions (Aagh!)” for some resolutions that have some real potential for success…

  • 2. Embrace A Little Insecurity
  • 6. Embrace Procrastination–Because It Might Make You More Productive
  • 11. Don’t Listen To These Happiness Myths, And Know The Power Of Negative Thinking

Happy New Year!

Why Lie About Santa?


  • Advent is all about looking from the deepest darkness towards the light.” – Richard Coles, Pause for Thought

As a card-carrying skeptic, I embrace doubt (failure of knowing) about things that many people take for granted or have strong convictions about. So why would I spring to the defence of a transparently mythological character? Nostalgia Critic explains it best…

  • “Why do we continue to lie about it? Recently it hit me why the illusion of Santa is not only a good thing, but also an important thing. Really think about all the surprises life has thrown at you. Just when you think you have it all figured out, you have all the answers, a bit of truth falls in your lap and changes everything. As many of us have noticed, change is hard and there has been far too many times we’ve come across a situation that’s fooled us. A person who did something we thought they could never do. Or a mindset that you’ve held for years now has to be totally different in light of some change in your environment. Everyone has to go through these tough times as some point in their life. Where some person’s perception of reality is suddenly destroyed and everything becomes uncertain. What else was I wrong about? What other surprises could be around the corner that make me look foolish? What should I now question and be afraid of? The ‘Santa Lie’, if you think about it, is our first way of dealing with that. It’s a way of saying, ‘Yes, this isn’t what you thought it was, but it’s alright. The world didn’t blow up. You still have so many things to be thankful for. And Christmas is still somehow just as wonderful as it was before. In fact, the discovery of the illusion and your chance to now partake in it might even make Christmas a little better for you. The Santa Lie is a way of adapting and accepting. A way to see that if something you thought was true was suddenly false, you can find out that not only can you choose not to be damaged by it, but you can actually grow stronger from it.”

May your holidays be filled with the cheer and generosity so magically personified by Santa. Ho, ho, ho!

Embracing Deletion

dinner fail


  • She who has broken many pots” – literal translation to African term for “good cook” (NPR)

Happy 9th Anniversary! Nine years of cooking up material on Embracing Failure as well as Leadership and Management. 1,029 posts. The traditional gift for the ninth is pottery so I am taking today’s inspiration from that topic looked at from a common source of inspiration for me, Seth Godin, and his post “Cracking the pottery”

  • “For every post that makes it to this blog, I write at least three, sometimes more. That means that on a regular basis, I delete some of my favorite (almost good) writing. It turns out that this is an incredibly useful exercise. I know that there’s going to be a post, every morning, right here. What I don’t know, what I’m never sure of, is which post. I find that it’s almost essential to fall in love with an idea to invest the time it takes to make it good and worth sharing. And then, the hard part: deleting that idea when it’s just not what it could be. Too often, organizations are good at the first part, but struggle with the second.”

Seth’s words reflect my own experience blogging. It echoes Clay Christiansen’s recommendation to “eat your own children”. In recent months, my frequency of posting has dipped a bit. I blame the “Delete” button with pride.


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