Fail Forward!

For a country that has been a laboratory for thousands of self-conscious social experiments since 1620 we just can’t seem to get failure. We make it hard to learn from the results of our experiments.  We literally toss out the baby (lessons and potential innovations) with the bathwater.  In fact the norm in most workplaces is to avoid discussion of unpleasant outcomes and to punish the perps.  We ostracize the sinner and silently thank the God of our understanding that we are not him or her.

We seem to fear “failure” as we fear few things.  But in the world almost everything “fails” to go right the first time.  We do not control most of the variables that figure centrally in the outcomes of our efforts. So how did we come up with a notion that makes us recoil from daily reality?

Here’s a clue.  “Fail” comes from the Latin fallere, to disappoint or deceive.  This is a deep contradiction in our thinking; the word we use to define the overwhelming majority of outcomes in the world is deeply embedded with dread.   It’s like dreading the sun rising in the East.  In a male-dominated western world, perhaps it’s a subconscious dread of disappointing Dad.  Our Judeo-Christian archetypes are Adam, Abraham, Jesus Christ and the Ultimate Dad.

“Failure is not an option” is now a commonplace in this school of reality avoidance.  You probably have heard it at one meeting or another.  But it’s sandbagging of the stupidest variety.  That “statement” is just movie dialogue, created by a screenwriter for the movie “Apollo 13,” (see the explanation at the bottom).  The most important thing NASA’s Jerry Bostick said got lost in the paradigm. “We never gave up on finding a solution,” Bostick said; in other words quitting was not an option.  Catastrophic failures are what got them into the fix in the first place.

Experimentation implies failure.  It comes from the Latin for “try.”  It share a root with experience and is in fact an obsolete synonym for experience.  In turn, trying something connotes getting it partially right and trying again.

This aversion to failing has even colored scientific endeavor. A combination of  superstition and bigotry once was Science’s main nemesis.  For example, 19th century “phrenology” thought it could predict criminality according to the bumps on, and shapes of, individual skulls.  These days, and for too many scientists,  greed and abhorrence of failure have replaced superstition and bigotry.  Every week another scholarly journal retracts a big paper because somebody fiddled with the data.  Too many egos are tuned to Praise and Prizes radio.

In Silicon Valley 75% of start-ups fail to succeed as their  founders hoped.  In life, as we now all agree, most things don’t work the first time.  In Greater Palo Alto, when tech founders bail from the failed start-ups the exit is described with the euphemism “pivoting,” as in “I pivoted out of that company to look at more promising opportunities.”  In a fire, the nearest exit represents a major opportunity indeed.  But the techies are on to something beyond a euphemism for bailing and face-saving.  They invented a forum called The Fail Conference,  It’s not perfect, but it’s a start

A Canadian group called FailForward calls for “Intelligent failure: the internal practice of reacting to failures more productively.”  We might use “using” in place of “reacting to.”

They also write,

“Failure happens. But when it does, it presents an opportunity for learning that can be of great value to your overall objectives.

“With the right products and practices, we believe individuals, teams, and organizations can turn failure into a catalyst for adaptation, innovation, and resilience. We also believe that these abilities and qualities are necessary, across all sectors, to advance some of today’s biggest challenges and ambitions.”

We have models for this kind of approach in policing.  Making use of mistakes is not some new and radical notion.  Special Ops units routinely do after-action debriefings in which all personnel are expected to be brutally honest about what worked, what don’t work and who to do differently in the future.  These specialized squads are classic learning organizations.  No two incidents are identical, but we can still learn a lot that will save lives in the future.  This practice  should be adapted to all significant activities in the field.

In an earlier post, we suggested a Mistakes/Innovations Buy-Back program. We would encourage personnel to tell the leadership about mistakes made in the previous 60 days, say, and what they learned from them.  Management would declare a blanket amnesty on anything short of criminal conduct.  We would learn a ton about what works.

Hold a monthly Fail, Learn, Innovate meeting (the FLI meeting) in the Department, maybe in place of one CompStat session (if you happen to use that tactic).  Encourage open and honest reflection on what was learned from the bread and butter work of patrol.  What do we know this week that we didn’t know last week about how a crime works in our town or how to approach a new problem location in a city precinct?



Explanation by Jerry C. Bostick, Flight Dynamics Officer (FDO) Apollo 13.
“As far as the expression ‘Failure is not an option”, Kranz never used that term. In preparation for the movie, the script writers, Al Reinart and Bill Broyles, came down to Clear Lake to interview me on “What are the people in Mission Control really like?” One of their questions was “Weren’t there times when everybody, or at least a few people, just panicked?” My answer was “No, when bad things happened, we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them. We never panicked, and we never gave up on finding a solution.” I immediately sensed that Bill Broyles wanted to leave and assumed that he was bored with the interview. Only months later did I learn that when they got in their car to leave, he started screaming, “That’s it! That’s the tag line for the whole movie, Failure is not an option. Now we just have to figure out who to have say it.” Of course, they gave it to the Kranz character, and the rest is history.”


About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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