Telling the Truth about Failure

For the last several weeks, as the U.S. financial services industry has crumbled before our very eyes, I have been writing a talk which I will give on several occasions in the next few weeks. The topic, chosen months ago, is “Telling the Truth about Failure: Ambition and Ambivalence”. I finally completed a first draft yesterday after more than the usual procrastination. As I look back at the churn and turmoil of the past few weeks, in the U.S. economy as well as in my own creative process, I am more aware than ever of the ways in which we seek to distance ourselves from failure.

I recently participated in a meeting of top tier R&D; leaders who were being briefed on the “organizational fitness” exercises which were about to commence (read: downsizing and layoffs). Later in the same meeting, the group reviewed their performance to date as reflected in their Balanced Scorecard. The total points to date indicated they were on a trajectory to achieve 96.5 out of 100 points. There was a long silence as the senior leader asked: “What’s wrong with this picture?”

The contradiction slowly began to sink into the participants in the room. The organization’s capacity to continue to document performance success while urgently acknowledging threats to its very survival is an ironic example of how commitment to succeed can obscure truth about failure.

When one considers thoughtfully the cultural biases and systemic forces that drive large organizations, there is much more to telling the truth and understanding failure than initially meets the eye.

Telling the truth about failure first requires us to acknowledge that instinctively we all want to distance ourselves from failure. Maybe that’s why I had such a hard time writing the past few weeks? Is that what’s happening in Congress at the moment? I wonder.