We’ve just been catching up on one of our favorite podcasts, Freakonomics Radio, and came across a wonderful conversation with Samuel West, the founder and curator of the Museum of Failure, which is a traveling pop-up museum with more than 150 failed products on display including the unlamented fat-free Pringles potato chips of 1996, which had the unfortunate side effect of causing diarrhea.
The conversation struck a particularly resilient chord when West said that “Maybe (it) feels better to learn from success. But I think we can learn much more from failure. It’s a natural way of learning. That’s how we learn to eat, how to walk, how to do anything is through a repeated trial and error.”
He went on to say that the “more society becomes focused on success the more failure gets stigmatized.”
We agree with his conclusions and think they apply in important ways to state and local government policy and management. There’s an ongoing quest to find “best practices,” a phrase that we described as making us feel jittery in a blog post we wrote for the IBM Center for the Business of Government a few years ago.
But when researchers, advisors, analysts, elected leaders and writers only look for success stories, they miss out on the benefits of learning from the efforts of those that didn’t succeed. Given the number of failed efforts that riddle the past, we’ll steal some words from George Santayana who is said to have coined the phrase, “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”
One example that immediately comes to mind was the de-institutionalization of the mentally ill back in the 1960s and 1970s. The idea was to get men and women out of (frequently pretty awful) psychiatric hospitals and put them into community care programs where they could be treated with greater success and kindness. But though many institutions were either shuttered or shrunk the money never really came through for the alternative. One of the results was the homelessness crisis we face today. As we point out in a column we recently wrote for Route Fifty, billions of dollars are now going back to creating more beds where psychiatric patients can receive help when it's needed.
But it took a long while for the lesson of that failure to be absorbed and to be taken into account in making new plans.
One of the few places in government in which failures are uncovered, considered, and analyzed is in the work of performance auditors. As Jenny Wong, Berkeley auditor wrote to us in an e-mail, “Audit findings are essentially identifying a gap in a service operation, internal control, etc. In fact, one of the four elements of a finding is assessing the impact from that gap (or you can say failure). That is at the heart of why something matters --- the impact.”
It's important to note that failures don’t need to be total disasters to provide a learning experience. Consider so-called near-miss analysis, which is widely used by airlines, when a tragic accident has nearly – but not actually – occurred. There’s lots to be learned when such incidents are reported, to avoid a life-taking disaster in the future.
As Shayne Kavanagh, senior manager of research for the Government Finance Officers Association pointed out to us, “catastrophic failures are relatively rare, but there might be lessons from near misses that prevent future catastrophic failures.”
Another reason we believe that the de-stigmatization of failures is so important: When people live in fear of falling short of the mark, they’re likely to be reluctant to take risks. A favorite quote of ours comes from well-known marketer engineer, physician and entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, “If someone is always to blame, if every time something goes wrong someone has to be punished, people quickly stop taking risks. Without risks, there can't be breakthroughs.”
Here’s an idea we have for the future of this website. If we can get the funding to support such an enormous undertaking, we want to open a “Center for Failed Practices,” which would provide a repository of examples of ideas that once born failed to thrive – and the lessons communities should learn from them.
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