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February 2013

Embracing Mistakes

By Molly Brennan, Contributing Editor
it was touching a nerve; tragic because it's so common, yet no one is talking about it.”

In April 2011, the first Epic Fail Pastors Conference was held in a church-turned-bar in Briggs’ town. It drew people from 17 states, plus one attendee who traveled all the way from Australia, according to Briggs. At the one-day event, several pastors talked about their failures and the lessons they learned from them.

While the discussions at Epic Fail Pastors can be highly personal and intensely emotional, Briggs wants it to be more than just confessional. “We have counselors available to help and listen, but we don't want it to only be a moan-and-groan session. We want people to walk away and say, ‘Now how do we build on this?'” he said. “I'm a big proponent of failure is a terrible thing to waste.”

Goldman, the emergency-room physician, agreed that self-reflection only goes so far when it comes to learning from failure. “When people fail, they tend to view it in a very personal way. But you need to separate the self-deprecation to reach the bigger lessons,” he said in an interview with Convene. “At a certain point, you have to stop the rumination and say, ‘What are the lessons I can carry forward?’ As I reflect on my own career, I learn more from my worst mistakes than I would ever learn from my greatest triumphs.”

The F-word

The crux of any failure discussion should not be the failure itself, but the analysis of the failure, said Edward Burger, a professor of mathematics at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. Burger co-authored the recently published book The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking, which features a chapter on failure. He believes so strongly in the positive lessons of failure that 5 percent of his students’ grade is based on the “quality” of their failure. “Failing is not a point of destination,” he told Convene. “It's an intermediate step that allows you to get somewhere else.”

That is not a new concept, of course. Failure analysis is an important discipline within the electronics, manufacturing, engineering, and aviation industries. It contributes to the development of new products and to the improved performance and safety of existing products, and has led to essential changes in airline safety. Each year, thousands of material and electrical engineers gather for conferences dedicated to failure, including the International Symposium for Testing and Failure Analysis, where participants share the results of microelectronics failures.

Although such data-driven conferences are highly technical, the basic principles — stress testing something until it fails, determining how to avoid that failure in the future, and then presenting the findings to an audience of peers — can be replicated in any industry and any setting, Burger said. “Failure presents a very concrete opportunity to ask, ‘Why did this not work?'” he said. “The point is not, ‘Hooray! You failed!’ It's, ‘You failed. Now what are you going to do?'”

Economic Driver

The fact that interest in failure started picking up around the same time the U.S. economy tanked might strike some as more than coincidental. Just as some might wonder if transparency about failure is a passing fad that will disappear from meeting agendas once the economy is firmly back on track.

Doubtful, said every one of the experts interviewed by Convene. “It's seductive to say there's trendiness to this,” Goldman said, “but you can go back hundreds of years to find philosophers who talk about the value of failure.”

Jason Zasky, founding editor of Failure Magazine, likes to point out that his online publication, which provides in-depth coverage of current and historical failures, was launched in 2000 at the height of the dot-com boom. Even during those heady times, failure struck a nerve, Zasky said. A few days after Failure went live, high traffic crashed the under-prepared servers.

“I don't think there is any other subject that is nearly as compelling,” Zasky said, adding that any discussion of failure is likely to fill seats. “Some people are interested because they want to learn from it and avoid the mistakes of others. Others are just curious as to how and why failure is a catalyst for success. Others just enjoy dwelling on the misery of others.”

Arsenault, meanwhile, cited a popular quote from former IBM chief Thomas Watson, in which the business pioneer was asked the formula for success. “It's quite simple really,” Watson reportedly said. “Double your rate of failure.”

“I think successful people have been doing this for a long time,” Arsenault said. “Maybe the notion that it's okay to publicly share and celebrate failure is a somewhat new idea; but innovators have been thinking this way for a long time.”

Making Failure Resonate at Meetings

While the value of learning from failure may be clear, how to impart the lesson in a meeting setting may be less so, particularly if it's the first time. Meeting professionals interested in introducing failure to their events should try to avoid blandly generic lessons in stickto- itiveness and instead be narrow and focused, according to FailCon's Cassandra Phillipps. And most important, keep the content honest. “Really push your speakers and be willing to take risks with them,” Phillipps said. “I get presentations weeks in advance and send notes back saying, ‘Get more real, it's too aspirational.’ Speakers often take the easy way out, but you'll get a higherquality event if you're willing to work with your speakers and really push them.”

FailCon speaker Mike Arsenault said: “I try to start with a bang: ‘We worked on this product and we spent all this money and it didn't work out.’ That gets people's attention.”

And surgeon David Ring, M.D., who has shared his surgery mistake with numerous groups, said that there's “something about storytelling that really engages people and draws them in more than just numbers and concepts. The first time I was invited to speak about my error, I thought maybe I'd show some slides. Then I thought, that's not what people want and that's not what changes culture. People want to hear the mistakes and my story.”

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