Failing is Failure -- Do Something About It

Last Updated Sep 15, 2010 6:46 PM EDT

Seth Godin says its time to call failing what it is.


In the September issue of Harvard Business Review, Godin opines that organizations have a tremendous fear of failure because "Failure creates urgency. Failure gets you fired. Failure cannot stand; it demands a response."

Change at this magnitude can be unpleasant, difficult and unpredictable. People could lose their status, titles and even their jobs. So organizations do all they can not to call failure what it is. We re-label it as a nonfailure. Maybe it's a "learning opportunity", or Version 1.2, or Bob's personal demons. Godin observes:

"The status quo is simply embraced and, incredibly, protected."
If we were honest about failure, he says, here are some that we might find within our own orgs:
  1. "Failure of will. If your organization prematurely abandons important work because of internal resistance or a temporary delay in market adoption, you have failed."
  2. "Failure of priorities. If your management team chooses to focus on work that doesn't create value, that's like sending cash directly to your competitors, and you have failed."
  3. "Failure to quit. If your organization sticks with a mediocre idea, facility, or team too long because it lacks the guts to create something better, you have failed."
You can read his complete list and other insights in his post, Redefining Failure.

He makes a great point. Failure, like death, is traumatic and inevitable. But unlike death, we usually get a second chance after a major screw up. Organizations need to see failure for what it is: a major wake-up call that something has gone wrong. And then fix it.

(Image by Flickr user markomni, CC 2.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.