“Failure is not an option,” sounds good and is a common theme in military movies.  It is a flawed idea, if you have not yet begun a project or if some unforeseen event has demanded a revision.

DMW Strategic Consulting is an Ottawa based consulting firm.  They publish a blog article almost every day.  A recent one “Heads or Tails” deals with the idea of failure being not an option.

They make a strong point that failure is an option.  Even that it must be an option.

Some of their examples:

  • Love is like that. You might get crushed. You might get left with nothing but pain and regret.
  • Innovation is like that. You might try really hard and get it wrong. You might not have the situation read right. You might screw things up.
  • “Going for it” is like that. Sometimes the difference between being a hero and being an idiot is timing.
  • Creating art or work that matters is like that. Sometimes your audience wants it and loves it, and sometimes your idea is just too soon and doesn’t resonate.

The paradox is inherent in the definition of “failure.”  Innovation and the others involve many steps, some of which will be inevitably misplaced.  Recognizing that the step is misplaced is a success by any standard. Review and revise is a part of both success and failure. You learn as you go.

No meaningful project is merely two-sided.  On/Off.  Succeed/fail

Reaching the end of the decision tree and finding the world is different than you expected could be deemed a failure.  Is it really?  Probably not.  What is the lesson? How to do it better next time, or do I need to revise my expectations of what works?

The world is not organized to match our wishing system.  When we are right we learn little.  When we are wrong we learn a lot and tend to remember the lesson.  Therefore in the real world the system is win, or lose and learn.  Learning and therefore failure is an evolutionary advantages.

New and complex situations can be approached with the “go for it” plan or they can be approached more studiously.

A squirrel reaches the end of the branch in a very different way than a bird.  The squirrel arrives at the weakest point having begun where the strength is greatest and gradually moving toward the destination.  Easy retreat. A bird arrives from a space where it is well-suited and lands at the weakest point in the tree.  Danger is unseen until after commitment to land. Retreat may be more difficult

Each way has merit, and the mission may include sections that are squirrel and others that are bird.  Sometimes you can evolve an answer, while other times it requires a leap of faith.

Failure is a paradox.  Our idea of it creates the problem.  Sometimes failure turns out brilliantly correct.  Think penicillin and vulcanized rubber.  When that happens we call it serendipity instead of failure even thought the original plan failed.

The lesson is clear.  Great and previously unseen outcomes occur with risk of failure.  Success is found in putting yourself in the space where both failure and success are possible.  Denying the possibility of failure limits the space and thus success.

A better motto for life, “Seek Serendipity!”


Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international public accounting firm and is now with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.

This entry was posted in Decision Making and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Serendipity

  1. Thank you for reading, and then mentioning my blog. Loved your analogy of the squirrel and the bird.
    You are an excellent writer. I’ll follow along.

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