The Employment of Failure

The dice don’t always come up boxcars; the probability is only 2.7777%

(From a valedictory given in Princeton at ETS in 2017)


At occasions like this one, the speaker usually offers his or her recipe for success on the premise that he or she must know a thing or two about that subject if only because they have survived for so long in the organizational jungle. Today, however, I thought that my abduction of your time might add more value if I focused instead on something that I have studied very closely and with which I have had enormous experience: failure. 

I’m not going to talk about the causes of failure, but rather…

The Employment of Failure: Failing Forward, Failing Better

This is not an entirely original topic. Many famous people have spoken out if not in favor of failure certainly in acknowledgment of its ubiquity and its uses. 

Edison was one of the foremost proponents of the importance of failure. This story is exemplary of his attitude:

I found him at a bench about three feet wide and twelve to fifteen feet long, on which there were hundreds of little test cells that had been made up by his corps of chemists and experimenters. He was seated at this bench testing, figuring, and planning. I then learned that he had thus made over nine thousand experiments in trying to devise this new type of storage battery, but had not produced a single thing that promised to solve the question. In view of this immense amount of thought and labor, my sympathy got the better of my judgment, and I said: ‘Isn’t it a shame that with the tremendous amount of work you have done you haven’t been able to get any results?’ Edison turned on me like a flash, and with a smile replied: ‘Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work.’

Walter S. Mallory on Thomas Edison

What I offer today is some lessons learned about how to fail — how to fail forward, fail better. Yes, my intention in this valedictory or farewell speech as Chief Learning Officer at what has been the best place to work in my entire career, is to urge us to fail more often — much more often — but to do so in a particular way. I am not kidding:  I fear that ETS’s aversion to failing of a certain kind may keep us from what matters most — achieving our mission. 

I believe as well that the proper employment of failure is necessary to the success of our business. But the business exists for the mission not the other way around, and for me as it is for many of us, that mission is like an oath, a promise we must keep. On the back of our badge it says that we exist to “make fundamental contributions to the progress of education”. We do that by taking “on the big challenges the for-profits will not because the challenges are too hard–and they don’t have the scientific capability to attack them–or because the return on investment isn’t big enough or soon enough–and their need to satisfy shareholders won’t allow it.” Those last words are from Randy Bennett’s extraordinary guide ‘What Does it Mean to Be a Nonprofit Educational Measurement Organization in the 21st Century?’, a document that inspires me again and again. 

Let me assure you that nowhere in that document will you find Randy advocating explicitly for more failure at ETS as I will today. So why do I make that leap? 

Learning organization is one in which “people continually expand their capacity to create results they truly desire.”

Set up situations in which people are pursuing meaningful outcomes but have access to a “a feedback system that enables them to learn naturally, every day.

And that means those people must have the opportunity perhaps even the incentive to risk failure. But I get ahead of myself.

Let’s work backwards for a few minutes: To fulfill the mission requires performances that solve the customer’s problem. Performance: that’s all of us making things happen in ETS’s ‘opportunity space’ with its ever shifting boundaries of competitor actions, government regulation, outside political pressure, customer demands, technological innovation, and that strangest territory of all — what we don’t know we don’t know. The quality and breadth of our performances in that space determines the extent of our realization of our mission. And that realization varies, doesn’t it? No one would argue that every day, every week, or even every year that our progress “to help advance quality and equity in education by providing fair and valid assessments, research and related services” advances at the same pace. Our purpose is not easy to achieve and some days, some weeks, some years we ‘move the needle’ more than others. The difference at least in large part is in our performances.

Superior performance requires among other things the best possible knowledge, skill, and attitude. Those elements do not drop down upon us from the sky or show up unbidden and unearned in our pockets. They require learning and they are not static: we have to keep learning. Running an organization is like walking up the down escalator; stop moving forward, stop learning, and we stumble and return from whence we came. Indeed the proposition known as ‘Revans’ Law’ states that for an organisation to survive, its rate of learning must be at least equal to the rate of change in its external environment, that opportunity space I just described. Randy Bennett’s paper pointed out that ETS is no longer in the environment of 1947 and it would be wrong for us to act as if we are. It would also be completely insane. A peek any day at the ETS Library’s Industry News on Yammer — yes, Yammer it won’t kill any of us — illustrates the rapidity of the rate of change in our external environment. 

Just scroll down and we will see. Yes, thank God, the last few of those on the edge are our contributions to this volatile, uncertain, chaotic, and often ambiguous environment with a swift rate of change. Exactly the kind of circumstances that require learning in order to produce performances that will achieve our mission.

But learning is hard. Learning requires experience: that virtuous cycle of planning, doing, sensing results, reflecting, and then revising our personal or larger theories before we start all over. 

[Slide 8]

Learning especially at work cannot move forward without experience. But experience involves risk; if it does not then little learning likely will take hold. Risk implies possible danger and hazards both predictable and unpredictable. Risk invites failure while tantalizing us with reward. ‘No risk, no reward’ turns out to be true most of the time because no risk means no experience,  no chance of failing, which means no learning and that means no acquisition of those critical elements of knowledge, skill, and attitude, no performance founded and refreshed upon those elements, no desired results, no necessary value added, no mission fulfilled. No nothing.

Not all failures are the same. Some will yield only misery and no learning. However, a certain sort — the kind of failure that leads to deeper awareness, to actionable insights, to revised theories and new sensemaking — can be the catalyst to that chain of events ending in mission fulfillment. This failing forward, failing better dislodges old knowledge, tamps down cognitive biases, and rearranges mental models. Failing forward, failing better incites our competitive spirits, our joyful determination to improve ourselves and our results. This is failing that is brave twice — first in the risk taken not to follow slavishly the safe Methodism of those protectors of turf and squelchers of inspiration, and second in its willingness to admit something is wrong, to look unblinkingly at what did not work and then try again. Nothing matters more in prospering from failure than the capacity for and commitment to reflection and revision of our ideas. 

So I offer 11 adages most with an added twist that explain what I’ve learned about this special kind of failure. That’s how I learned, of course: I risked, I failed, I risked again, I failed forward, I risked again, and I failed better and on and on picking up learning and adding value along the way from time to time. From these 11 adages, I hope that others at ETS will consider failing more often in this particular way or at least allowing others to do so. I recognize that there is pretty good chance I will fail even in that aim, but as I am about to argue fear of failure is no reason for failing to try. 

Chart of personal failures

I am talking about business failures. There isn’t enough time to tell you all that I have learned from my personal failures and I think the effect would probably be more titillation than education. I will say this: 1978 was a doozy

I draw these lessons from career related failures. And there are more than enough of them — a robust sample size — from which to draw some inferences. To start, I’d like to take us all back to 1972. Watch out for the contact high.

The guy with the halo was my first self-producing collaborator in 1972

Waiting For Godot: Are You Running Your Life or Is Your Life Running You?

When I was 20 years old and about to be a senior at Manhattan College in the Bronx, I became the co-producer and one of the actors in a touring production of Waiting for Godot. For anyone who doesn’t know Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece, it’s about two tramps who are waiting in a bleak landscape for the personage of the title. A few other characters come and go; I played one of them, Pozzo. Basically nothing happens and the characters just talk to each other, and I know that sounds a lot like Seinfeld but not really.

I was a pretty experienced actor at that point, but I’d never done anything like co-producing a touring production. My partner in the venture also was my roommate, Michael McKeever of Philadelphia. 

He asked me a number of times whether I really wanted to do this. He emphasized that it was not going to be easy for us to avoid a loss, let alone make a few bucks to supplement our off-campus jobs as security guards.  Whether I was being daring or just being dumb, I decided to take the risk and I blew it.

The catalog of ways in which I failed as a co-producer was both long and varied: muffed deadlines, botched negotiations, inexact accounting, missing props. But throughout I just kept on keeping on and didn’t even acknowledge — never mind reflect upon — my errors and omissions. I could rationalize this was the summer of 1972 and I was 20 years old in New York City with all of its both permanent and transient distractions. I could state accurately that the production ran for months all over the New York City area and made money. But the point of the story is that as this co-producer, I was a huge failure, and this was a failure that I could not evade. I did try, but I was the occupant of the bottom bunk in a small bedroom where my co-producer occupied the top bunk. 

After some weeks of uncomfortable silence, McKeever led me out of the permanent party that was our living room and down the dark narrow hallway to the chair that was by his desk. There were four of us in the apartment and only McKeever actually had a desk, which told you a lot about who was the adult in that quartet. He switched on his old-fashioned gooseneck lamp and while seeming to angle it at the production ledger managed to shine the light very brightly upon me. McKeever was — and is — very organized. He can still produce at a moment’s notice a copy of the poster that he silkscreened for the production 44 years ago. So on that night at his desk, Mac had record-keeping that documented everything we had done with Godot — what ‘we’  planned, designed, purchased, contracted, performed, sold, spent  — over the months of the production. In one column on the right hand side written in his beautiful calligraphy, there were initials indicating which of the co-producers had the responsibility of each of those rows. He moved his finger from one line to the next — a roster of the many ways in which I had failed — looking at me occasionally to see if I would bother to protest statements such as, “oh, that was the time you forgot to buy the bowler hats” or “I’m not sure you were there for this one: you decided that you had to go visit a girl in Queens.” 

Offering denial in the face of such exactitude would only have deepened my embarrassment. I apologized, but that wasn’t what my friend sought from this encounter. At the end, he drew himself back and held me in a firm gaze while asking, “T.J., are you running your life or is your life running you?” Are you running your life or is your life running you? 

There it was — the first lesson: you can’t fail forward, fail better if your life is running you. We can’t fail forward without seizing responsibility — not accepting but seizing, embracing, owning the thing. We don’t have to be the designated leader or decision-maker. We do have to take responsibility for whatever the venture is or else we cannot learn from its eventual failure or success. If we can’t make that move then we should sit on the side and let someone else have the chance. Be accountable or be absent. Plan our failures; don’t let them befall us. If we want to fail forward, to fail better, we must be running our life. This is no time for heedless experiment. Failure because of risk can reward, but failure because of incompetence, inattention, or immaturity is something that should only happen once and preferably when we are young and the stakes are still relatively low. And then get on to the other 10 lessons.

Make sure the view is worth the climb… 

… and the possible fall

If we want to fail forward, fail better — we must aim at things that matter. Then we fail in such a way that we gain valuable experience and also secure the possibility of eventual success. How do we know what the things that matter are? There are two guides and if they fit then I’m betting that the view will be worth the climb. The first goes back to Randy Bennett’s words, those “big challenges the for-profits will not (pursue) because the challenges are too hard”. Our world is filled with problems that if solved yield advantages to people everywhere. If we want a view that is worth the climb, then make it possible for the instillation of claims that are so dynamic that they tell people not only what is known, but how to learn more. And do that in such a way that the six-year-old in Costa Rica, the high school sophomore in Kazakhstan, the teacher in a banlieu in France, the state superintendent in Mississippi can afford to obtain our solutions. 

The second guide is our own passion. As the Bible verse suggests, be either hot or cold: Failing forward, failing better cannot arise out of a lukewarm commitment. When we are not passionate about our quest then we need to find a different one and we need to get out of the way of others who do have that passion. I like what the game developer Nick Pettit has to say about gauging your passion in these kinds of moments: “You can always make more ideas, but you can’t make more time. If you decide to work on an idea, make sure you’re serious about it.” If the challenge is big and the passion is powerful, not only will the view be worth the climb but so will the tumbles that we might take in the failures that we experience along the way.

That doesn’t mean that the view we seek is always from the peak. We climb hills before we climb mountains and we climb smaller mountains before we attempt Mount Everest. And even when we set our sights on what the Nepalese call ‘The Forehead in the Sky’, we move from base camp to base camp. Therefore, a view that might be worth the climb and the possible fall is an experiment conducted to prove that an idea or design could work, hypothesis testing. Or it might be failing forward at experiments “conducted to expand knowledge and investigate the possibility.”i Obviously, sometimes those efforts succeed, but if we’re truly at the frontier, the edge as John Seely Brown and Chuck Hagel put it, “undesired results should occur at least now and then.

Some of you might say that you are not in a position here at ETS to go after these kinds of challenges that are out there on the edge. WRONG! We need people to take the risk of applying knowledge to tasks we already know how to do in pursuit of productivity. Doing that here at ETS could be just as difficult and just as potentially valuable as figuring out the next advance in automated scoring or making the next leap forward in learning progressions. Any quest — any failing forward, failing better — that increases knowledge that we can apply to what we already know how to do or what is new and different is worth considering — and worth failing forward at. 

But ETS needs a balance. If we only ever chase productivity, efficiency, cost cutting, then we only ever catch those things. It is impossible to create new products or even new capabilities without failure that is not obviously productive at every moment that may be at times inefficient. Such failing forward is the only way to learn and the only way to innovate. So that’s the first lesson: make the view worth the climb and the possible fall then apply the curiosity and boldness necessary to go right to the edge, which is where the creating happens.

You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take — but keep a shot chart — Eddie Powell

I played competitive basketball until I was 50 years old. Well, I thought it was competitive. My friend and fellow Bronxite Eddie Powell who was a preposterously better player than me —an All-City New York guard, a scholarship player at South Carolina — delivered this lesson. One morning we were breaking between games and he heard me vowing to myself that due to my woeful performance I would not to take any more shots the rest of the day. Eddie somewhat gently smacked me upside my head and said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” To be afraid of failure is to reject success. The answer is to learn from failure because as Bill Gates has pointed out success is a lousy teacher. By the way, I’m pretty sure that in the day I could have dunked on Bill Gates.

One of the reasons that this encouragement is so much easier to say than to do is explained by what behavioral economists call prospect theory, our innate preference for the sure thing, our desire not to experience any losing including and perhaps especially losing face. That fear of looking stupid is important because as psychologist Carol Dweck has pointed out such condition means we are unlikely to learn. Self-protection is what gets in the way of individual and organizational learning that leads to transformation. 

I do not scorn this defensiveness; it is a reasonable protective mechanism for individuals and organizations even if it means that we can block ourselves in trying to accomplish things we want to accomplish. I take my lead from Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey and suggest that the way out of this bind is to experiment. Maybe start with the layup rather than half-court shot. Try practicing at the barre as a dancer before trying to pirouette.

And we should be determined to get better with each shot that we take. In looking at how people become experts, Angela Duckworth emphasizes that when they practice, “they work on something specific they can’t do, they get a lot of help from other people like coaches, they get a lot of feedback on what they’ve done. And even when they try their hardest, which they always do if they’re experts, they are going to get all this feedback on what they did wrong. And they are going to feel confused, and frustrated, and sometimes they might even feel stupid. But they recognize that’s part of learning so they get up and they do it again.”

The advantage that those experts might enjoy is that they do so in an environment where the employment of failure is not only tolerated but celebrated. Some would argue that our role as the guardian of validity, reliability, and fairness in the world of educational measurement never allows for failure. I think that such a belief at the least misunderstands and at the worst condescends to our stakeholders, all of those students for whom we have vowed to advance quality and equity in education. If we explain to the public the different nature of claims, if we educate them and treat them as adults and take them along on this journey in which we prototype and experiment and fail, then we all stand a chance of winning

Some would argue that our business environment cannot venture into the kind of experiments I advocate, into the employment of failure. And if we are proper stewards of this organization, then we need to take such concerns very seriously. But we are also the greatest innovators in educational measurement. Therefore, if we endlessly push what is at all risky to the bottom of our list of priorities then we retreat into an environment such as the one described by the British industrialists and innovator, Sir Martin Sorell

Sir Martin Sorrell

In this environment, procurement and finance departments (rather than growth-drivers such as marketing and R&D) have the whip hand. Risk-aversion and short-termism rule in the world’s boardrooms. This attitude is entirely understandable—and entirely wrong. Calculated risk-taking, in the form of investment, is the lifeblood of any business that wants to be successful in the

Sir Martin Sorell

You miss 100% of the shots that you do not take. The best we can ever do with the ultimate defense is to manage a tie and given what’s on the back of our badge that is never going to be good enough.

“There is nothing so practical as a good theory”

Kurt Lewin

But check if someone else might have a better one

I did not play basketball with Kurt Lewin, considered the founder of modern social psychology, but I did get to be friends with one of his disciples and a significant thinker in his own right, Edwin Nevis who helped me to understand what constitutes a good theory in the world of work. First, it’s written down or even better drawn as a picture so that everybody gets a chance to look at it, take it away, and maybe even mark it up. This image here is actually Thomas Wright’s 1750 Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe. As a drawing, philosophers like Immanuel Kant found it easy to understand and mark up. 

Secondly, a good theory establishes boundaries: it tells us that if we do X then we believe Y will result. Thirdly, this theory is testable in the real world and the method of that testing is also made apparent. We think that we can do something and that it’s important: the view is worth the climb. We have summoned the courage to have a go: we are willing to take that shot even though it might be an air ball. Now we need to specify how we think that first step happens and what that action should produce. Assumptions matter and we need to spell them out to ourselves and others. We need to assert the risk that we are taking and the failure that we are willing to experience. 

Without a good theory, we may stumble along with no theory or just as dangerously pursue a grand theory. My own list of such instances where I failed in part because my theory was grand rather than good would include productivity initiatives, new product development task force, team effectiveness, and others, many others. I’ll let you fill in your own examples that come to mind. 

Without a good theory we risk bad losses. When there is no picture that everybody gets a chance to view, the boundaries are fuzzy or nonexistent, and either the plan is not testable in the real world or the testing of concept will cost us dearly. The employment of failure should never cause the expenditure of millions. In order for us to construct better theories, we need to change the paradigm so as to assure the folly of grand theories doesn’t happen. 

Eric Ries

What would that different paradigm look like? Good theories in which our primary object is what Eric Ries terms “Validated learning.” A good theory recognizes when we are not yet at the point of trying to “make stuff, make money, or serve customers”, when we need to do is to learn, to validate our concepts as scientifically as possible through conducting experiments with results that may build towards those stuff and money and satisfy customers. The fact that we pursue ‘learning milestones’ rather than a finished product or assured profitability doesn’t mean we never get to those things. It means that we are being practical, concrete, trying to move from what Ries refers to as ‘a spreadsheet fantasy’ to specific knowledge that we can then use more certainly to create what we want, what we need.

Our willingness to purchase learning with small expenditures of time, money, and possible failure instead of immediate revenues may seem wacky right from the start to many. Some may sympathize and even support initially our ideas, but they will quickly ask us to show them the money. And if we use the argument advanced by Ries in the context of innovation and new product development that “Traditional accounting metrics—profitability, ROI, net return on assets, IR—all show zero in the early stages, even if you are the next Twitter” they and other critics might ask quite reasonably why we can’t learn just as easily from successiii. And that success is measured by surplus. 

The finding of many organizational researchers that top executives “attribute the success of their organizations to their own insights and managerial skills and ignore or downplay random events or external factors outside their control” means that success often instructs oddly or even incorrectly. Instead, in this paradigm we comprehend that failing forward, failing better doesn’t mean that we must fail, but we do need to accept risk within a model that values learning, guards against overconfidence, and takes the time to ask why things turned out the way that they did.

And in this paradigm both polarities — those who cannot abide risk and only value surplus and those who are willing to be at the edge and prize learning — must be collaborators. Neither gets to have what Sir Martin Sorell calls ‘the whip hand’. One side does the other patience and resources and in return they must be given good understandable theories about how the employment of failure is in the service of creation or correction, innovation or incitement.

One last point about theories and the employment of failure: sometimes the ones that we make up are not as good as the ones that are already out there in the wider world. Failing forward, failing better means taking advantage of those theories and avoiding the rejection of any idea that was not invented here. If we fall prey to the traps of confirmation bias where we only absorb information that supports the way we already think things work and cognitive entrenchment where we only dig ever deeper into our own specialties rather than looking around at what is going on in other dimensions, then we set ourselves up for those bad kinds of failures, the ones that result from irresponsibility and immaturity. Yes, our tendency to go our own way can be wasteful or even fatal when there is no rational basis for us doing so given our limited experience in a particular area or the evidence-based conclusions contrary to our plans. The useful employment of failure is all about learning and if we start out by refusing to learn from others outside of ETS then we are unlikely to learn from our own endeavors.

All systems resist change, complex systems resist change in complex ways

I was trying to find the source of this adage, and then I remembered that I made it Is ETS a complex system? Charles Perrow, an important if now somewhat underappreciated management writer, defined a complex organization as “one that has so many parts that it is likely that something is wrong with more than one of them at any given time.” Like much of Perrow’s writings, that is both witty and spot on. And for me, it describes ETS.

Difficulty in learning from failure starts with our frequent unwillingness to acknowledge that we are within a complex system. No matter how good our theory is the subsequent calculations as to what worked and what didn’t and why will skew wildly if we ignore the complexity of our system. Amy Edmondson, one of the most astute observers of failure in organizations, argues that the consideration of a failure in a complex system as bad “is not just a misunderstanding of how complex systems work; it is counterproductive.” We have absolutely no chance of interpreting the world more effectively; that is, of learning, if we treat failures within complex systems without an appreciation of the inherent uncertainty of work, without a sense of the dynamic nature of both the internal and external environments, without a very healthy respect for how performance actually happens. I’m not suggesting that we should like such failures, but I am suggesting that we should do a better job of learning from them. 

And when we interpret our world differently because of these failures recognizing that they occurred within our complex system should prod us to question our premises. When senior managers continue to make what Chris Argyris refers to as ‘single loop’ changes, alterations that do not question the overall premises or ‘governing variables’ of the organizational system, they are making sure that we will repeat history. .vii

But what’s perhaps most significant about any refusal to see ETS as a complex system is the way in which it greases the path to a pit of blaming whenever anything goes wrong. A culture of blame is a simplistic if not simpleminded culture. It is a zero-sum culture; if you are getting praise there is less available for me, if you are getting blame there is less that can attach to me. Even in a 24/7 global organization, there’s only so much blaming that can go on before people collapse in exhaustion. We should not fault someone for defaulting to self-preservation when they either lack the skills to go higher or the culture exerts so much pressure to keep everyone low, but we should as leaders of this organization change the culture. 

How might we do that? By distinguishing amongst types of failures consider the effects of the cognitive dissonance common in work organizations where so many people talk about gaining insights and improving methods by studying failure but “these painstaking efforts led to no real change” in part because everyone is in CYA mode viii 

In a telling observation, Amy Edmondson noted that when she asks executives to consider the spectrum of reasons for failure that extends from those that are blameworthy such as deviance and inattention and lack of ability to those that are actually praiseworthy such as trying to resolve uncertainty or test hypotheses or test in the interest of exploration, they offer that the percentage of failures in their organizations that are truly blameworthy are “usually in single digits — perhaps 2% to 5%.”

She then asked those same executives how many are treated as blameworthy and they cough up the truth that the figure is 70% to 90%. 

Consider that dissonance for a moment. We know that there are many other elements associated with a failure because we are a complex system. We know also that there are failures that came about because someone was trying to do something very useful for the organization. And yet we still insist on treating those failures along with the ones that are the result of incompetence as blameworthy.

If we want to increase the rate of failing forward and failing better, then we should heed Edmondson’s point that “only leaders can create and reinforce a culture that counteracts the blame game and makes people feel both comfortable with and responsible for surfacing and learning from failures.”ix We look right, we look left, and we look in the mirror: we are those leaders.

[Slide 18]

Always tell the truth then you only have to remember one story Sister Lucille Socciarelli to Tim Russert —but remember that there are many truths

Mine was from Sister Noreen. No matter the provenance. There is another dimension to this tendency to blame people for failures. It makes it more difficult for those with less formal authority, less tenure in this community, less social capital to dare to take the shot, to make the climb. And we should help them in that effort not hinder them. Learning how to fail forward, fail better is also about learning how to participate constructively and developmentally in the failures of others. To do that we need to be a community of truth tellers. There are two activities that Ron contrary to such a community, ‘political maneuvering’ and ‘impression management’ as Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey have labeled them. And they both often involve twisting or at the least diminishing the truth.

The Eastern European writer Stanislaw Lem wrote wisely that, “in an avalanche, every snowflake declares its innocence.” That only guarantees another eventual avalanche. If our story has to be that we are perfect, that we always win, that we never make a mistake, it’s those other people who are screwing things up, who don’t know what they’re doing, who are the wrong people for the job, then we are depriving not just ourselves but the organization of vital information and necessary development. We should seek out the truth in every failure and every success. We should not assume automatically that we know what happened and why. Daniel Boorstin was probably not the first to say it, but he noted that “the greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance — it is the illusion of knowledge.” Act as if we don’t know and stop trying to shape the narrative to make us the innocent snowflake. 

This kind of tactic leads to an even more pernicious circumstance where someone who dared to do something that is judged not to be a success, and a river of stories starts to flow about it and them. Our colleague feels attacked, but almost no one is willing to talk to them about it face-to-face. If we want to fail forward, fail better or if we even just want to be decent folks, mensches: then we need to be honest with others about these opinions and conclusions. 

[Slide 19]

My mother used to say, “There is a special place in hell for the hypocrite.” Or was that Dante? No matter who said it I won’t try to threaten those who do this with the eternal fires of damnation, but I will say this blaming people behind their backs, this manipulation of the truth kills community, it drives out initiative.

Sometimes the truth upon which we must all agree is that a person lacks the ability to hold an accountability. They have no chance to employ failure productively in their currently held position When that is the case, I believe that two things need to happen: a truthful and compassionate conversation with that person in which we are still willing to be influenced by them because they may have other information and an unflinching view as to our responsibility whether it was in how we selected them, managed them, or supported them. If ETS is going to fail forward and fail better than we should drop the fantasy that somehow lurking amongst our number is some cohort of poor performers and instead explore the reality that some colleagues may be in the wrong job and some of us apply imperfect techniques to their management.

Always telling the truth doesn’t mean that that we alone hold the truth. I’m intimately familiar with that fallibility. We believe so strongly that what we are trying to do is critical, indeed obligatory, that we block out important parts of reality. We cannot learn from failure being a know it all. If we walk into a meeting, or leadership development session, or strategy gathering, and think that we already know the answers then even when we do fail — and we will — the learning will not be available to us. Our insistence that we know everything will not allow us to accept that we have missed something.

[Slide 20]

It’s a great life if you don’t weaken my grandfather Jack Elliott’s favorite quote by way of John Buchan… But keep in mind the frailty of others

I use this quote because I find myself drawing upon the strength of my forbearers regularly like my grandparents who I got to spend parts of the summer with in Throgs Neck. Jack Elliott ran the mechanic shop for the New York City Department sanitation up on 125th St., Mary Ryan came out from County Clare with five of her sisters on the Lusitania, a ship that was sunk on its return voyage. She worked in a hotel as a maid and then raised six kids in the Bronx, three of whom became New York City police, oneain ER nurse, one a Christian Brother and a professor, and my dad, an electrical engineer. I’m sure you have similar stories that sustain you. They were tough people; they didn’t weaken and consequently they and their descendants have enjoyed great lives.  

I recommend the adage to all of us because if we endeavor to be involved in more of these kinds of failing forward, failing better situations, the reactions can be cruel and draining. When we try to do these things we will hit immovable barriers, solid rock that will not yield. 

[Slide 20]

The late CR Snyder whose writings propelled me into organizational development work in 1990 found in his studies of survivors who were thrivers that the more successful among them shared certain characteristics that are essential to failing forward, failing better. 

Turn to friends for advice on how to achieve our goals. 

Tell ourselves that we can succeed at what we need to do. 

Even in a tight spot, tell ourselves things will get better as time goes on. 

Be flexible enough to find different ways to get to our goals. 

If hope for one goal fades, aim for another; take what we learn from this failure and move on to the next experiment. 

[Slide 21]

The last tactic resembles goes the old Gaelic saying Cha d’dhùin doras nach d’fhosgail doras.

No door ever closed, but another opened. 

And, yes, sometimes it might be a trapdoor but with the steps above, we will find a way out of that too. 

Why my so certain? A critical component of employing failure toward eventual success rather than failure employing us in a downward spiral is the presence of hope. And the hope of which I speak is not some vaporous commodity or slogan on a poster, it’s the will, the determination and commitment, along with the ‘ways’, “the mental plans or roadmaps that guide hopeful thought.… A mental capacity we can call on to find one or more effective ways to reach our goals.”x

And this not weakening, this combining of willpower and ‘ways power’ is another way in which we might participate more constructively failures of others. We must model all of these behaviors ourselves, but we must do so with an awareness that not everyone is ready for this kind of exercise, not everyone has the stamina to suffer what happens when we try these kinds of experiments, not everyone comes from an environment where this sort of courage is forged. Many people need to pick these things up along the way. They need to take even smaller steps. And they need to talk about what they are experiencing in productive sessions. Not the endless “running from meeting to meeting, fire fighting, exhausted and mentally unavailable.” Those behaviors are “usually a defence mechanism against anxiety, most likely the anxiety of uncertainty. … a form of avoidance.”xi If we want to help people to develop in this way and we want to help ETS to gain the kinds of advances only available through the employment of failure then we have to allow for design different conversations in which we all model collective thinking, reflecting, and revising of theories. Finally, lots of compassion and encouragement is how we support others not to weaken. As the great Irish writer Brendan Behan noted, “Many of our fears are tissue paper thin, and a single courageous step would carry us clear through them.” We can make it easier for others to take that step

[Slide 22]

“The Dogs Bark, but the Caravan Moves On: الكلاب تنبح والقافلة تسير” A very good Arab proverb, but you just might want to check why those dogs are barking

In an operate and maintain culture such as ours where what is most prized is being able to repeat a procedure or program over and over again, there will be lots of chatter around the kind of risk-taking espoused in this valedictory. Some of that will come from caution. Some of it will come from politics. And although we believe that our efforts will improve what we might consider to be a broken system our experiments, our climbs, our shots may threaten that system. As Ronald Heifetz says, “There is no such thing as a broken system. The system is working for someone.” If that is the case, if our moves complicate the interests of others but not those of ETS, we need to understand this and move on — to not be distracted unnecessarily. Controls and culture raise a powerful clamor whenever someone goes against them. We take that for granted and we remember the advice of the great Winston Churchill that stopping to throw stones at every dog that barks at us means we will never get anywhere. Heeding every criticism and complaint will foil all of our experiments. Failing forward, failing better, by definition challenges the way things are and raises a ruckus.

Sometimes though the dogs are barking because the caravan is headed into quicksand. And one way for us to deal with that is to be more willing to engage in vigorous forms of dialogue. Throughout my 15 years here, I’ve been inspired by the work of Roger Schwarz, which is  builds upon the work of other great experts like Richard Hackman and Chris Argyris. Roger’s principles of transparency and curiosity are paramount. One of the most important things that I have been able to do here but that I still consider failing forward is the introduction of Roger’s work on team effectiveness. If we were all in body its values, assumptions, and behavior, we would be a much more effective organization.

However, I also believe that we should not be afraid to argue. Now there are those who believe that I enjoy arguing too much, that disputation is my default. I am not going to argue with that judgment. We must take into account each other’s styles and preferences to a certain degree. However, argument is good and our experiments benefit from it because with good argument there is a freer flow of information, a more likely generation of useful knowledge. If you don’t believe me, then consider what one of the founders of knowledge management and knowledge creation, Ikujiro Nonaka said, “In the act of creating, people argue. They have heated dialogue. They get upset! Without real exchange, we can’t create knowledge. Knowledge creation is a human activity.” 

But we should not let our argument descend into just barking back and forth and I regret the times I fell into that hole. If the object of our failing forward is some kind of transformational change whether internal or external then we need to use the advice of that old friend Edwin Nevis and engage the resistance. Be curious and find out why others are fighting us so strongly. It may be that they are doing so because they are anchored to the status quo or just of their status. That is their truth. However, it may be that they see aspects of reality that we have missed. That is their truth, and we can make our effort a stronger experiment by blending in this new information. In failing forward, in failing better, we are advantaged by adopting what Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey call a multiframe view of the world, one in which we understand that our frame is not the only one, and we get curious about those other frames without necessarily adopting all of them.

‘Don’t Kid Yourself’

family motto of the Elliotts as dictated by my father, John T. Elliott 

There is no twist here.

This is one of our Wedding pictures from 1983. That slightly dazed look on Marjorie’s face 

is because my father has just leaned over to her and told her the Family motto: don’t kid yourself. He wasn’t kidding as I can attest from growing up as his son and working alongside of my brothers and my sister in his electrical engineering business. In a way, I learned from those experiences to admit failure so as to learn from it but also to avoid putting the community in the double bind of pretending things are successes that are in actuality failures.

When we fail whether in missing the shot or sliding back down the mountain on one of those climbs or as an organization, we should not kid ourselves as to what occurred. To shift the story and widen or narrow the framework is not just dishonest, but a theft of the opportunity to learn whether individually or communally. If we look at any type of scorecard results and the marks placed there don’t match the experiences of those in our community, we invoke Orwell and his doublespeak. When we ‘declare victory’, ‘move the goal posts closer’, or just act as if nothing happened in a failure, we disturb the very order of things. RJ Keefe reminded me recently in his writing that Confucius insisted the principle of “zheng ming, or ‘right names.’ Call a spade a spade. … It is regrettable to temper one’s speech to facts on the ground. However necessary, it is never okay. We must always struggle to avoid or at least to confine it.” xii We must not kid ourselves about our failures or our successes.

We all recognize when this happens. We may join the pretense, but we cannot pretend to ourselves. We see the averted eyes. We read the redacted reports. We listen to what is not said but is known to all. And if we learn anything at all, it is how to scramble and dissemble.

Science proceeds funeral by funeral — Max Planck 

 but hopefully not our own funeral

If we look around and feel that there isn’t much room for experimentation at ETS, we should take heart: it not always going to be like this. Old coots like me will step aside and leave a space for different minds and different actions. Be ready. Not in the scheming, conniving way of personal ambition, but in the dedication to service, to adding value, to keeping this extraordinary institution not only going but faithful to its mission. Know the experiments we want to do and the people with whom we want to do them. Dream of the risks we want to take and when somebody finally stop selling in the ball take the shots and make them count.  

Sometimes people need to go so that there is more freedom for failing forward and failing better. Great companies recognize this. They avoid what Otto Scharmer calls institutional sclerosis by lack of experimentation. Royal Dutch Shell analyzed the key characteristics of companies that have been successful for more than 100 years — that’s 30 years more for us and that 30 years often proves to be very hard to traverse. One of Shell’s findings was that those companies that made it past the century mark had a “tolerance to experiment at the margin.” Conversely, if there are people who have the authority, who get to make the decisions, but who lack that tolerance to experiment at the margin than a company does become sclerotic. That must not be ETS’s fate.

Sometimes the way in which we can best help an organization we love is to leave our role or at least transition into a less obtrusive one. We may be blocking the way of other people, of newer better ideas, of the experiments that will spark those brighter failures that with their fire give us the energy to advance the mission.  But if we are going to stay, then let’s make up our minds to be influenced by the next generation of ETS leaders. When I started as the alcoholism counselor for Saratoga County mental health in August 1976 just about 40 years ago, my mentor Reverend Tom Davis told me not to worry about being so young, not to shrink from trying to do different things. He wrote on my notebook a quotation from St. Paul, “Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers…” xiii 

That advice now has a different relevance for me. While I counsel the younger among us to discover the critical knowledge about how the way things work around here and why those cultural norms developed from the most senior members at ETS through programs like Deep Smarts helmed by my long-time colleague Felicia DeVincenzi, I can advocate also with the ancients of ETS, the masters of our guilds, that they can learn from the apprentices as well. I like the concept that Jennifer Garvey Berger has espoused of ‘naive capability’: connecting to “people with deep expertise in a related field that might give new insight” or just allowing a fresh set of intelligent eyes to influence usxiv. We can learn a great deal from our interns, from our Millennials, from our new entrance to the organization because they are not yet cognitively entrenched. Our younger ETSers can see things that are now impossible for us to spot and in their observations are the possibilities for experiments. We fail forward more productively when we take advantage of everyone within the community.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better”

Samuel Beckett

And so in closing, let me return to Samuel Beckett who wrote Waiting for Godot, the occasion of that first really important learning of mine about failure. “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.xv”  Not failing stupidly and irresponsibly, but failing forward planfully and intelligently. Not failing with hubris but failing better with curiosity, with determination to succeed in time. Declare failure as part of the path of learning, as part of figuring out how to succeed. If the only people to whom we accord prestige are those with successes or worse those who simply know how to work the system cautiously repeating the same steps over and over again while blocking the efforts of others to experiment and innovate, then other members of the community especially those more junior will learn the wrong things. And we don’t want that — not in our heart of hearts. There is good faith in wanting ETS to achieve that mission; we just have to summon the courage day after day to pursue the proper employment of failure.

Thank you for your time and thank you for the use of the hall