Focusing on Failure

In Confident Leadership by Alex Quigley1 Comment

[Insert inspirational quote about failure here]

I fail therefore I succeed. Failure is the pathway to success. Learn to fail – learn to succeed. The internet is awash with aphorisms like these. A million posters about attitude and mindset capture the same common sense truth. Failure, although bitter to the taste, is crucial medicine for learning how to succeed.

Michael Jordan, The Beatles, Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison and more. The stories of the rich and famous failing their way to success are legion. Sadly, we can’t all be the greatest basketball player, pop band, CEO or inventor in the world, but we can decipher wisdom and knowledge from these stories of failing on the path to expertise.

Of course, the reality is that every human instinct drives us to avoid failure at all cost. It overpowers an ‘inspirational poster’ every time. We know failure is important for learning, but that doesn’t override our urge to fly from failure. Our brain arms itself with an array of cognitive biases to defend against the ego-bashing power of failure. A crucial shortcut for our thinking is the ‘availability heuristic‘. That is to say we rely on our available experience to make our best judgements. There is a glaring problem with that. If a system, like education, is failure averse, only sharing apparent ‘successes‘, we actually begin to narrow our capacity to make truly well-informed decisions.

Karl E. Weick, in his study of HROs (High Reliability Organisations) identifies that the very best organisations are focused on failure. They are mindful of their failures, rather than being mindless. It is human nature, and the bias of a group in an organisation, to expect that success will simply repeat itself given similar conditions, but this isn’t true. In a complex non-linear organisation like a school, or in a system of schools, very small changes in circumstances can have a significant ‘butterfly effect‘ – for good or ill.

Focusing on our successes, paying token attention to our failures, can result in a mindless organisation that runs on autopilot.

Organisations preoccupied with success are more likely to encourage simplification, carrying on with their routine practice, sticking to their existing roles and responsibilities because they ‘work’ (when the past tense ‘worked‘ should be applied), even when circumstances change radically. You could argue that companies like Microsoft get caught in this paradox. The reasons for their initial success, devising the personal computer, can narrow their focus and simplifiy their future planning, rendering their organisation less responsive to change, like when mobile and tablet devices emerge on the technological landscape.

Small failures in changing circumstances can aggregate and can quickly have large negative consequences. The butterfly can become the hurricane. The successful organisation can swiftly fall from grace.

As Bob Haas, Chairman of Levi Strauss, stated:

“There is nothing as blinding as success.”

Our education system is a prime example of a system that doesn’t encourage a recognition of errors, due to high stakes accountability. We therefore find it hard to learn and we waste time repeating the failures of others. In the main, like most human organisations, schools are good at implementing changes, but we aren’t as committed to being particularly expert at evaluating those changes.

Our biases and our defensiveness militates against evaluation with independent rigour. We are simply human organisations – all too human. This is one reason why research evidence has become something politicians and schools are looking to exploit to improve their decision making. Please read John Tomsett’s post on our exciting randomized controlled trial about working out what works in schools – see here. Seeking rigorous evaluations of our interventions is necessary when the stakes of our education system are so patently high.

In schools, teachers come into contact with most system failures, so it is imperative that we create a climate of trust where such failures can be reported. Small scale failures, like the underperformance of an individual teacher, can indicate system wide flaws, such as poor leadership of a department, or flaws in a ‘Performance Development‘ system. In a human institution, relentlessly focusing on failure can deplete the confidence and egos of staff, and it is therefore avoided in the main. It is important that school leaders confidently present a focus on failure as being entirely about improvement, fending off the potential for pessimism by creating the conditions for dealing wih failure positively.

Focusing upon failure as an organisation goes beyond voicing trite aphorisms, or using gimmicks and posters. It must be an active and systematic approach to school improvement. We must sideline our natural fears and seek it out, embracing failure.



Karl E. Weick has produced a really helpful questionnaire for HROs to analyse whether their organisation is focused on success or failure.

How well do each of the following statements describe your work unit, department, or organisation?

Enter next to each item below the number that corresponds with your conclusion: 1 = not at all, 2 = to some extent, 3 = a great deal.

1. We focus more on our failures than our successes. ________
2. We regard close calls and near misses as a kind of failure that reveals potential danger rather than as evidence of our success and ability to avoid disaster. _______
3. We treat near misses and errors as information about the health of our system and try to learn from them. ________
4. We often update our procedures after experiencing a close call or near miss to incorporate our new experience and enriched understanding. ________
5. We make it hard for people to hide mistakes of any kind. ________
6. People are inclined to report mistakes that have significant consequences even if nobody notices. ________
7. Managers seek out and report bad news. _________
8. People feel free to talk to superiors about problems. ________
9. People are rewarded if they spot problems, mistakes, errors, or failures. _________

Scoring: Add the numbers. If you score lower than eleven, you are preoccupied with success and should be actively considering how you can immediately improve your focus on failure. A score between eleven and eighteen, you have a moderate preoccupation with success rather than a fully mindful preoccupation with failure. Scores higher than eighteen suggest a healthy preoccupation with failure and a strong capacity for mindfulness.

Originally created by Dr. Karl E. Weick and Dr. Kathleen M. Sutcliffe in their book Managing the Unexpected: Assuring High Performance in an Age of Complexity. This audit and other assessment tools for High Reliability Organizing can be found at:


  1. Another great post mate! I too am petrified of failure but know that 9 times out of 10 you are going to fail before you truly succeed. It’s all about looking at failures, as well as successes, to get the bigger picture for decision making!


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