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As I talk with people across a range of organisations about innovation and disruption, a common theme emerges – that of how we need to be able to become more accepting of failure. Failure is how we learn. We need to fail fast and fail often.

It strikes me that, whilst the sentiment is worthy, there is a crucial semantic issue with the concept of embracing failure – and that is that “failure” is such a negatively-loaded word.

Over my career I’ve often found myself trying to explain the power of connotation within the language we use, and it’s often fallen on deaf ears with people working in the technology sector who see it is unnecessarily “soft”. But the language that we choose to use has a massive impact on our ability to get things done.

For example, the current independence campaign in Scotland has thrown up the issue of how the “no” campaign is burdened with a negative outlook because it’s supporting the concept of “no”.  Most of the “no” campaign’s messages seems to have focused on what Scots will lose from exiting The Union, rather than the positives of staying part of the UK.

The framing effects that language has on our behaviours can be profound. For example, experiments in the late 1990s showed how when a test was framed as one of “sporting intelligence”, white participants performed significantly better than black, and the inverse was true when framed as of “natural sporting ability”. The actual tests were identical, but the connotations of language reinforced stereotypes held by participants.

The world of business is seemingly obsessed with regarding everything as a series of solvable puzzles, when the reality is that we are faced with unknown mysteries much of the time. This further complicates the use of “failure” as a term because it’s perpetuating a myth that complicated things in life are actually simple, and all we need to do is find the right answer.

In this context, much as we might talk about making “failure” positive, it’s such a loaded term, I don’t know that it will ever be possible. Rather than to try and change our cultural perceptions of the word, better surely to change the words used?

So how about changing our references. No longer “Success” or “Failure”, but to draw from scientific method and talk about ideas that are proven or disproven?

I have an idea that, for example, banning of the term “failure” might be a good one. The only way in which I can find out is to try it out. When I try it out, the idea may be proven or disproven. If it’s proven, I can build upon it, if disproven then it’s time to have another idea.

Whilst “disproven” might still be a negative term, it’s not nearly as culturally loaded a word as “failed”. And that might make it much less scary for people to innovate and experiment.

7 thoughts on “Banning failure

  1. Euphemise your troubles away!

    Word choice is fascinating and hugely important. Personally, I am always wary of avoiding calling a spade anything other than a spade – although I may be OK with shovel. However, there are certainly times when terms are so overgrown with offense and misunderstanding that they need to be avoided. Equally there seem to be times when changing the terms used just imbues the new term with the meaning of the old or, worse, confuses everyone.

    The most obvious example I have seen is the word “problem”, which got replaced by “issue” which in turn seems to have been superseded by “challenge”. Has it helped? We still have problems. On a recent coaching course, one of the tutors told us he has banned the word “try” as he thinks it offers a route to avoid commitment. A more positive example I have come across is to avoid telling players they are “unlucky” when their shot is off target or their pass doesn’t reach it’s intended recipient, as it implies that they are lucky when they do score or make a pass.

    Is the real issue in this case the fear of being judged? To have been found wanting. Even if to “succeed” is dependent on factors outside your control. And in the face of such pressure rules may get bent, definitions changed and somehow “success” can be reported. Using “proven” and “disproven” instead requires an emotional detachment from the idea, opinion or initiative, otherwise the judgement is still in play and nothing has changed. In a society where we pillory our leaders for changing their minds – even if they do so as a result of new evidence – it seems we have some cultural change to effect regardless.

    1. Actually, the more I think about it (and running the risk of sounding a bit precious), I don’t think this is about euphemisms. Actually “failure” is the wrong word. It’s the wrong concept. It’s too black and white – it’s about the scale of ideas being good, bad or indifferent, and how until you actually put them into effect, you just won’t know. The fear of being judged is definitely a problem, but assuming that your idea is absolutely right (in the way that certain styles of modern management determine) is the fallacy… (the fear of being judged is also a reason for plain inaction most of the time, I’d reckon, too…)

  2. Great article, Matt, which draws into the light a niggling doubt I’ve had about the whole experimentation ethos, but been unable to express. As I’m increasingly taking an investment stance on these “little bets” (Peter Simms), I’m sitting with the gate conditions of ‘continue’, ‘scale’ or ‘exploit’, and ‘exit’. This means I can reframe at the outset the notion of “safe-to-exit” probes / experiments / investments. I believe that in taking this perspective, I can capitalise on using the scientific method of conducting coherent experimentation, without suffering the cognitive baggage of the “failure”, since failure in this paradigm is more aligned to inactivity – a failure to invest / cost of delay, didn’t take action in the first place. Rather than a reframe, I believe that this shift moves failure into exactly the right context (inactivity), which drives the right behaviours. Thoughts, anyone?

    1. I think I agree with you there, Andrew. Interestingly, though, it took me a while to understand your point because I misunderstood your use of the word “exit”. I’ve had a lot of time in the start up world in the past couple of years, and there “exit” is the investment world is generally a very positive thing (IPO or acquisition). I had to re-read your comment quite a few times before I twigged that I was misinterpreting… which I guess, yet again, shows the challenge of fighting against established meanings!

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