Rethinking Failure

You’re wrong about failure.  That’s right, I said, “You’re wrong.”  Even if you aren’t, it’s very likely that someone you work with is wrong about the common misconception of failure.  Think about your last environmental, health, and safety (EHS) audit.  I’ll bet at the first hint of an auditor’s finding, you or someone else from your team, with little, if any, thought or consideration, fought tooth-and-nail with the auditor about the legitimacy of the potential finding.  In my 20 years of experience doing both EHS compliance and systems audits, I see it all the time at organizations of various shapes, sizes, and ranges.  But why?  Why do we instinctively tend to defend our processes, operations, and work products so strongly?  One simple reason is the thought of failure.  Most of us try to avoid failure as if it were a plague. Failure carries with it a stigma.  It’s deemed a deficiency, a fault, even a weakness.  It’s considered a non-option.  In today’s success-driven and ultra-competitive world, we need and are expected to be successful.  We can’t afford to be failures.  We idolize our sports heroes, entertainers, and famous CEOs.  We focus entirely on all their successes, accomplishments, and victories and give no attention to the value of their failings.

When missteps and mistakes do actually occur, we deny or reject the idea of anything but perfection.  Even when we are told there has been a slip-up and to fix it, we gloss over it and quickly try to “sweep it under the rug” and forget about it.  We make excuses and don’t confront the failure head-on.

Unfortunately, we don’t take advantage of the benefits that can be gained from failures.  All too often, we’re so primarily focused on not failing and, instead, we inadvertently settle for mediocrity.  As an alternative to our everyday view of failure, we need to recognize and support the idea that the capacity to make a mistake is vital to human thought, understanding, and progress.  When our errors are brought to light, we need to appreciate them as opportunities to get over our egos and return with more robust and smarter solutions.

In the increasingly complex world of EHS, effective trial and error becomes even more essential.  We can’t predict whether or not our ideas will actually work, so we need to be open to the concept of practicing to fail in a safe space and be prepared to let go of an idea if it misses the mark.  We also need to accept the fact that what may have worked 1 or 2 or 10 years ago may not work now or may not be as good as it once was.

We’ve been taught that persistence pays off, so it feels almost criminal to label something as a failure.  But, being able to recognize a failure means you have the possibility to modify it into something more effective, functional, and practical.  Danger lies in thinking failure is impossible and adaptation is unnecessary – think of the Titanic…unsinkable until it hits an iceberg.

Think about engineers and programmers pushing systems to their breaking points so they can learn more about them.  Think about Thomas Edison and the allegedly 1,000 tries it took before he developed a successful prototype for the light bulb.  A reporter once asked him how it felt to fail 1,000 times.  Edison responded that he hadn’t failed 1,000 times, but rather, the light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.  It supposedly took James Dyson 5 years and 5,126 failed prototypes to develop the world’s first bagless vacuum cleaner.  And, if you’re a sports enthusiast, think of a quote from Michael Jordan.  He said, “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career.  I have lost almost 300 games.  On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and I missed.  I have failed over and over and over again in my life.  And that is why I succeed.”

Give yourself, your colleagues, and your workplace culture the permission to fail.  It’s most likely not failing that will cause substantial damage, but not acknowledging a potential problem and learning and growing from it might.  So, the next time you have an EHS audit, view the experience as an occasion for improving yourself and your organization.

For additional information about value-added EHS audits or to learn about a “pre-mortem” analysis for avoiding detrimental failures, please contact Jason Van Dyke at