Reframing failure

I love working with engineers.  They are curious and always looking for ways to make things better.  They sometimes suffer a little from bringing a mechanistic problem solving mindset to complex living systems, but more often than not what they contribute to processes is a sense of adventurous experiment.  This video shows why.

A few months ago at an Art of Hosting workshop in Springfield Illinois, Tenneson Woolf and I had a great conversation about failure.  We were curious about how the mechanistic view of failure has worked its way into human consciousness in this culture.  There are very few places in the world where people are free to try unbridled experiments, especially in organizational life.  There is always a scarcity of time, talent, money and materials that forces a mindset of efficient execution.  Failure is not an option.

And yet, failure of mechanical systems – an engine blowout in the example above – can be catastrophic for the machine but doesn’t have to be accompanied by the destruction of people.  Humans fail in different ways – we most often get things wrong or end up doing things unexpectedly but as PEOPLE we don’t fail.  In other words, it is not possible for YOU to fail.  Your body might give out, your mind may fall apart, but YOU don’t fail.  Living systems, even in death, continue to cycle.

This is the difference between me and a machine.  The argument can be made that it all comes down to lines and circles.  Machines exist on lines.  They are built and then they enter the stream of time, becoming subject to entropy immediately.  Mechanics try to keep them together so that the machine survives the longest possible time with the greatest effeiciency.  But all machines come to an end eventually and fall apart.

Not so humans and forests and oceans.  These exist in endless cycles of complete interrelationship.  Even when the earth itself is consumed by the sun in another 5 billion years or so, all of the heavy atoms that have flowed through this planet will be repurposed and reused in the next incarnation of the solar system.

The failures of living systems then are simply the mechanism that drives evolution, the next order of learning, living, structure and life.  As time winds down, another arrow winds up – the evolutionary spiral of learning and adaptation.

There is a great image in the above video of an engineer standing next to a bucket full of a million shards of an engine staring down into total destruction and a complete end to a prototype and at the same time  moving forward one more step in the cycle of learning and evolution.  That is what reframing failure is all about, being careful to learn from your mistakes and not to see the pieces in the bucket as any kind of useful analogue for a life of curious engagement.


  1. I like your post, being someone who has their fair share of mechanistic genes and all…. You say “there are very few places in the world where people are free to try unbridled experiments, especially in organizational life.” I assume you’re referring to those few places that make it “safe to fail” . Not sure who I got that phrase from – yet it’s one that I always pivot on, and one that can be plumbed for a lot of good stuff; i.e., what does “safe” look like in your organization?

  2. Christoph … thank you thank you.

    Let’s be on a mission together to fail as much as possible, to make as many mistakes as we can …. to enter into our deepest and darkest – not to be lost but to find gifts.

    Let’s commit to failure. Let’s commit to storytelling of it.

    Let’s commit to learning. Evolving. This to me is what it is to live in appreciative consciousness. The root of evolution. Love ya Tim

  3. What about when machines are made of people? :)

    The failure of the machine lives on in the minds of people, the behavioural changes it produces, and the stories they tell well into the future.

  4. What machines are made of people? Or is this a comment about how the story of failure lives long in the imaginzation after the machine itself has disappeared…not sure what you’re getting at here Matt.

  5. Corporations… the big machines. Society… the bigger machine. That’s all I was thinking. Cog-in-the-machine metaphor, etc.

    You might be a human in your corporate job, but half the time you have no idea what you are contributing to.

    I am half-saying what you said — the story of failure living on. But I’m not sure you can say that a machine ever dies. Someone — and usually a group of people — created it, and they will try to make it better the next time if it goes wrong.

    A machine is both an idea and an assembly of components. The ideas stuff is as above. The components all have lifetimes before they are broken down. Some are very long, but they will at some point be broken down. Plastic does eventually break down, but it takes a very long time. If they are made of iron or steel, they will rust, etc… wood will rot.

    Anyway, I get your point. Nice one.

    By the way, this might be a bit out of line, but that comment by Tim above is moronic. I hope he never builds anything where public safety is central.

  6. Thanks matt, and I have to agree with you that your comment about Tim is completely out of line. I won’t edit you here, but I make a point of engaging with you and not calling you names even though we rarely agree on things. If you would like to continue to comment here, it would be great if you could refain from ad hominem attacks against people you don’t know based on a few words in a comment box.

    Tim and I have worked together on some big projects and he is a dear friends and a trusted colleague. He works extensively with youth who are at risk of dying because of their choices and their circumstances and he is very competent in situations where actual life is on the line. Public safety is often central to his work and he has developed a well deserved reputation for being good at it.

    So let’s be clear about what goes on here on this blog. I welcome comment critical of what I say and write and welcome spirited discussion about ideas between whoever chooses to join in. But I don’t have much patience for slander against you or others.

    I invite you to higher level of civility, one I know you are capable of.

  7. Chris, do you know what “ad hominem” means? Because I specifically said that his comment was moronic and didn’t say anything about him personally.

    As for the rest of what you said, if that is his occupation then his comment is even more destructive than I first thought. It is OK to accept that you will make mistakes unintentionally and learn from them, but to go out to purposefully make a mess of things and then bask in the glow of your screw-up is a bit too avante-garde for me. I suppose it sells well to his clientele, though.

  8. What I take from Tim’s comment is that in being afraid to make mistakes we rarely move beyond what needs to happen to do things better, and god knows, much of the way we treat youth in this culture suffers from a distinct lack of creative impulse. It’s easy to lock people up and let future generations deal with the consequences.

    Matt, your criticism here seems driven by a need to say *something*, but I wonder why you result to simply calling things “moronic?” It’s your rush to judgement I find problematic. I don’t have any trouble sparring with your ideas, but it’s not really worth my time to debate someone who feels that calling someone’s ideas “moronic” constitutes making a case. And then defends it as such.

    Also, I know what ad hominem means. You could have said something like “Approaches that actually cultivate failure are moronic. For example, what role would they have in public safety?” Instead, you said “…that comment by Tim above is moronic. I hope he never builds anything where public safety is central.” That is an abusive ad hominem argument. You did indeed make a comment about him personally. And then you made another one in your justification of the first without knowing anything about how he relates to his clients.

    So one more time, you are welcome to post here about ideas. But please, I ask you, be civil in your arguments and make your case with grace. You’re not advancing the conversation with your distracting personal comments.