Why ‘embracing failure’ is easy to say, but hard to do.

It was a Saturday night, in a cold and damp Leeds train station. I was on my way back to London, having visited friends, when I received two text messages from a colleague.

The first: “I’m about halfway through the draft of your book. It’s great.”

The second, forty minutes later: “We should talk.”

By way of background, the manifesto we’ve recently published, Creativity Is Power, was written in a flurry of activity in late 2016 and early 2017. As with many creative enterprises, it was a group effort: various writers, editors and advisers helped with its development.

Despite ample assistance, the writing process had been difficult. The research was full of blind alleys. Trying to distil many years of experience into one short read proved challenging. The right structure only emerged towards the end of the process, after a lot of false starts. Now, when I thought the book was finished (and, in all honesty, had emailed it to a few folks in the hope of some ego-warming praise), there was this.

So we talked. Well, my colleague did. I mostly sat there and listened as he tore the entire back half of the book limb from limb for its tone, content and structure. The feedback wasn’t unkind. It also wasn’t wrong.

“Embrace failure” runs the maxim. At one level, it’s solid advice. It’s easy to be in a state of Zen-like calm about the creative process in the abstract. In principle, there’s nothing to fear in the idea that not every ball you hit will become a home run.

But here’s the thing: when push comes to shove, it’s hard to embrace failure. It’s especially hard when the failure you’re being asked to embrace is 20,000 words long, and you’re overtired and miles from home, and the only thing you want to do is throttle the individual whose sensible, constructive feedback is forcing you to acknowledge that the work into which you’ve poured time, money and soul isn’t much cop.

And when, as you contemplate this, you’re sat outside WHSmith in Leeds train station, gazing at piles of bestsellers.

You will succeed in your creative endeavours when you are secure enough in yourself to know that, when things inevitably go south, this is a natural part of the process for everyone and not a reflection of your talent or experience.

More importantly, you need to keep knowing this at the worst of times, and take action accordingly. This is the hard part.

In business, as well as life, I would lay money that things go wrong for me as often as they do for you. Here’s what few people in organisational development will admit: at such times, I find advice like ’embrace failure’ almost impossible to listen to without committing acts of physical violence, let alone act upon – and I teach this stuff for a living. Why it’s a struggle for so many of us bears examination.

Let’s start at the ground floor. Human beings are fairly simple creatures: psychologically, we are all motivated to move towards things that are pleasant, and away from things that are unpleasant. And there is nothing less pleasant than threats to our individual or collective safety.

This is a foundational reason why ‘embracing failure’ is difficult: psychologically, failure runs counter to our deep-seated need for survival. This is particularly the case if if the culture in which we are living or working has not explicitly permissioned failure of any sort. Our reptilian brains do not know how to cope with the implied threat, so will do whatever it takes to negate it.

If that feels both simplistic and stark, it’s also worth contemplating the role of the ego: the part of our psyche that is responsible for our self-identity. In many of us, ego is dominant. This is not to say that we automatically lack humility or self-awareness (I am not using the word ‘ego’ in a pejorative sense), but if our self-identity is pegged to success in an aspect of work or life, then the ego will likely kick back against any threats to this. Despite the reassuring fact that failure is usually unlikely to kill you, the ego can often perceive failure as a direct status challenge – and therefore a survival threat. (The negative reaction I had to the feedback on the book was entirely ego-driven.) The insecurity that the ego breeds can infect entire cultures as well as individuals.

Insecurity is a major enemy of the impact culture.

Insecurity undermines people’s ability to bring their best selves to work, leads to damaging behaviour such as mitigating speech*, and makes difficult leadership decisions almost impossible to make. Embracing failure is doubly difficult if you never allow yourself to experience it in the first place.

Let’s now acknowledge the real-world basis for the survival threat: failure isn’t cheap. It usually costs time, effort and money to fail. The bigger the project, the harder the fall.

For individuals, the impact can be considerable: many of us have seen first hand how failure can lead to depression, wrecked relationships, or financial hardship. Even contemplating such outcomes can be enough to send many of us scurrying for cover. Like growing old, creativity ain’t for sissies.

For organisations, where the cost can run to thousands (if not millions) of wasted hours and pounds, failure may directly impact profitability, investment worthiness, or overall business outlook.

To talk of the costs of failure is not revelatory, but organisational reactions to it can be. Indeed, failure can predict all sorts of odd corporate behaviour. It may take the form of cleaving to ideas that are long past their sell-by date. It can lead to data being massaged, or even faked outright. Paradoxically, it can even result in retrospective attempts to reframe failure as success. Intellectual contortion is a seldom vocalised but necessary skill in a great deal of corporate life.

Avoidant behaviour is often inbuilt into work environments in practical as well as psychological ways. One of my favourite sayings is that, in business as well as life, ‘no-one ever got married planning for the divorce’.

In many organisations, failure does not have a budget. It is not planned, it is not proactively managed, and it certainly isn’t part of the cultural narrative.

There is a fundamental difference between conservative forecasting and worst case scenario planning. Survival threats make the worst case difficult to contemplate; better, in many cases, to act like it’s never going to happen, and stick the consequences on the never-never.

There’s another contributing psychological factor at work here: the empathy gap. When we are angry, we struggle to understand what it is like to be calm. When we are young, we struggle to understand what it is like to be old (one reason why encouraging people to save for pensions is so difficult). And when we feel like success is round the corner, we struggle to contemplate failure. This predisposes us to mortgage the present for the future, with often regrettable consequences: for one thing, organisational intolerance of failure generally increases the more often it occurs, unless proactive steps are taken to guard against this.

Before we continue, it’s also worth noting that failure is in the eye of the beholder. I want to draw careful distinctions between ‘test and learn’, where a lack of success is a valid (if frustrating) test result, and failure itself. The key lies in the intent. Last year, when one our marketing campaigns went south, I didn’t get to reframe our failure as success by saying it was a process of test and learn, because it wasn’t set up in that way. We wanted leads. We didn’t get them. We took a deep breath, and moved on.

Creative thinking is required in any situation that demands a combination of intellect, insight and ideas to solve a difficult problem. By definition it’s hard, fraught with ambiguity, and non-linear. And this combination of features often turns it into a last resort. Like water, our general preference is usually to follow the path of least resistance and default to more linear courses of action where possible.

As a result of this, creativity remains an outlier in a work culture that still largely organises people largely by task and process. This means that most organisations simply do not understand enough about the conditions in which creativity flourishes (or dies).

Organisations often lack a common language through which to articulate their creative aims and ways of working. In turn, this lack of a shared language quickly leads to a lack of coping mechanisms when things go wrong.

Gartner’s famous Hype Cycle, which describes the adoption of new technologies, is a useful analogue for the creative process. More often than not, creative problem solving features a ‘peak of inflated expectations’ followed quickly by a ‘slough of despond’. The same cannot be said of timesheet management, for example, or logistics planning.

Yet consider how Board level discussions might vary at different stages of the creative ‘Hype Cycle’. Failure may seem improbable from the peak of inflated expectations, but inevitable from the slough of despond. Both readings might well be false, but the danger of heightened emotion blinding decision-making is considerable. Again, the empathy gap is at work: contemplating how you might feel in the future is an effortful leap from the vantage point of the present.

So, leaders, you can talk about ’embracing failure’ all you like, but to do so credibly there are five questions to which you need to be able to answer ‘yes’:

  1. Have I personally experienced the emotional consequences of failure, and can I articulate them to others? (Related, equally on-the-money question: if I haven’t experienced them, why is this?)
  2. Does our culture have clear parameters around success and failure? Can we explain the difference between these two states?
  3. Do we have a common language to talk about our creative processes, and a collective awareness of the fact that it isn’t linear?
  4. Is our house in order – have we properly planned for failure, including scenarios where we can’t dig ourselves out of the hole we’re in?
  5. Do we make it a habit to forensically examine for insights instances where failure was absolute, versus those where it turned out to be a calling point on the road to success?

I’m glad that I didn’t kill Creativity Is Power in the face of some helpful but emotionally challenging feedback. The team and I didn’t enjoy our journey to the slough of despond, but at least we recognised it as such, and could consider how best to move forward it light of this. Many organisations lack such language and inbuilt coping mechanisms.

In the final analysis, I wouldn’t sacrifice for anything the vulnerability that goes hand in hand with being creative. A willingness to succeed means a willingness to stare unblinkingly down the barrel of obliterating failure. It is a task that is both emotional and practical in nature, and mastering its complexities may well be the work of a lifetime.

As regards the book, I’d be curious to know what you think of it – have a read for yourself.

*Mitigating speech refers to linguistic patterns through which people reinforce their perceived inferiority in a given hierarchy. It is one of the great underminers of constructive discussion. A classic mitigating construct is to introduce an opinion with a phrase such as: “This may be rubbish, but…” This is not to argue in favour of hubris, but a bit more assertion usually goes a long way in getting your views heard.

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