Failure to Launch

A watch out in staying too close to the herd is group mentality.

Recently I've been in several forums IRL and online where various groups of HR professionals focus on the theme of celebrating failure, i.e., needing to encourage originality.

Listen, I understand the nuance.

We want to institutionally incentivize and reward appropriate risk-taking by celebrating those who step out of line, take a different path and make something happen. Or, at the very least, don't shoot failures.

I get it.

But ask yourself: how many coworkers get this nuance with all its implications?

Its not the failure, its the learning

CC Jim Henson

As someone who's taken contrarian stands in many ways over the course of my career, I'm comfortable with being different and sometimes alone. Yet there are three things about this catchy phrase – celebrate failure – that give me pause.

  • Topicality – Our discipline like few others loves a good catchphrase. And having found the flavor of the month we tend to overuse it. Yet to be taken seriously by other business functions we have to take ourselves seriously. Yes, you'll get people's attention by saying we need to celebrate failure. You'd better be able to succinctly explain what that really means in practice though and why its good for the business once you do. You don't have to impress other HR people with your insight – you need to impress the business with your value

  • Out of Sync – Most organizations beyond the raw startup and pure R&D (little of which exists in the US any longer) don't think celebrating failure is a good way to learn. Its distracting and sends a very sublime message (see the first point). Busy people tend to forget subtleties. We need to stay in step to make our contributions count. Taking extreme views may work for radio talk show hosts but for most of us it places us in a position of little import. Once so marginalized its hard to effect systemic change

  • Execution – All organizations survive (in part) on execution. Few groups have such excellent ideas that they can prosper in spite of poor performance in their operations. Getting things done timely and efficiently is a big part of personal and thus group success. Asking people to celebrate failures, missteps, etc., is swimming upstream and like the proverbial salmon many won't make it. Learn, acknowledge, move on? Yes. Party about it? Uh, no.


Learning organizations are more adaptive and better suited to long-term viability. Of this there is no doubt. Learning through trial and error – failure – is indeed important.

Yet, in the rush to be current HR people sometimes espouse things that on their face make no sense. Asking people to celebrate failure is an intellectual exercise that requires all parties to really think dexterously about the implications underneath.

Until we really internalize what that means we run the risk of being just a fad-adopting cheerleader shouting advice from the rooftops as people pass us by.

Getting work done.



3 thoughts on “Failure to Launch

  1. See, this is a tough topic because in order to succeed people have to have enough room to fail. If no one is allowed to take a risk or is micro-managed to the point nothing can be their fault then the organization is doomed to mediocrity, at best.

    I couldn’t bring myself to celebrate failure. I’ve never felt good about mine, though I do take the opportunity to learn from failure and we do often learn more from failure than success. If it is someone’s first time to make a mistake, it is important to not lose the potential lesson from it.

    In my not so humble opinion, I think this “celebrate failure” nonsense is just more of our present society trying to make sure no one ever feels bad about anything. The disappointment of failure is important. Pain teaches us not to do something again. What needs to be managed is that the disappointment is not so overwhelming that the person who failed becomes completely risk averse.

    Encouragement is good. Understanding is good. Having an honest conversation about lessons learned is what’s important.

    • Yes, I see your points and agree Rob. We do need room to learn, experiment and re-try things. Yet lately I see our focus as moving towards actually celebrating the failure as if it is okay. Its not.

      Failure is not a good thing. Its a miss, an error, a setback. We can – and should – derive learning from these. But to blindly say ‘celebrate failure’ without understanding the underpinning makes us a caricature in my opinion.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment Rob!

  2. Pingback: Friday Round-Up: Revenge of the Blogs Part 2 | Confessions of a Middle Manager

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