Monday, February 21, 2011

Don't let failure be the enemy of success

Votaire said, "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good".

This is often quoted in politics where the acts of creating, selling, passing, implementing and maintaining complex policies can result in challenging decisions between perfect, yet practically impossible and practical but only good outcomes.

I'd like to suggest a similar saying for bureaucrats, "Don't let failure be the enemy of success"

There are many situations in life when people have to choose between trying something difficult, risky or new and staying with the 'tried and true' approach.

This is often portrayed as choosing between risking failure or accepting a lessor level of success. Indeed many people often see their choice as between failure and success - one outcome seen as negative and the other positive.

However failure and success are not opposites, are not opposed to each other and both can be useful steps on a path to better outcomes.

Every success is born from a range of failures, every failure occurs on the back of successes. The two are locked in a continuous dance of possibilities, risks and choices.

When we remember successful inventors, we often overlook the failures on their path to success. When we remember failures, we often downplay the successes that were achieved and often had longer-term implications. We also forget how that failure helped us shape our thinking, abandoned an approach or otherwise consider more variables in order to improve future success.

It is rare to find an individual, organisation or nation that has not had a share of, learnt from and built on both their failures and successes.

So what does this mean in practical terms for public servants and government agencies?

It means take a risk from time to time. Try something new or different - you may produce a new or different outcome.

Even if the new approach fails it may trigger further ideas worth exploring, potential successes your organisation may not have otherwise considered. It can help your staff deal with future (inevitable) failures, test your organisation's systems and otherwise help you tune activities for the better.

At worst you have new information and can justify not trying that approach again, given a particular set of circumstances. This can help you avoid larger, longer, more costly or more devastating failures in the future (fail small and fast as start-up wisdom goes)

Failure is almost always a type of success, even if it is merely used to disprove an approach and help you focus on more productive channels.

So remember, don't let failure be the enemy of success.

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