+44 (0) 1727 843820 paul@impro.org.uk

In Veep series 3, Vice-President Selina is handed a smart watch as a gift from Clovis, a big googly internet company. It doesn’t work. The chief executive steps in to smooth it over: ‘Ah, we have a saying here: Dare to Fail’.

Selina: ‘Well, that’s a job well done.’

Let’s explore four possible sequences (or quadrants, if you’re a fan of classic consultant 2×2 matrices) and see what they might suggest to us about success and failure.

 Our four categories are:

  • Failure followed by success
  • Failure followed by failure
  • Success followed by success
  • Success followed by failure

Starting with ‘Failure followed by success’, we enter the Clovis Quadrant, the one that inspires the ‘failure fetish’ – you know, ‘embrace failure’, ‘fail forward’, ‘fail more often’. This quadrant represents the claim that failure sometimes comes before a corresponding success. The claim has some merit, and it’s mildly interesting, in that it often takes a few attempts before something difficult is achieved. What’s worth saying about this quadrant is mostly covered by the old adage, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try again.’ Even that injunction is subject to the success being worth aspiring to – a working watch, say. And only if you manage to learn as you go, by not repeating the mistakes. If you’ve failed at first, you need to do something different to find a way to make the watch work.

You may encounter a more extreme version of this perspective, in which the adherents tell us that this is the only quadrant – in other words, that success is always preceded by failure, and failure always leads to success. Neither sequence stands up to scrutiny.

Sadly failures are not always followed by a corresponding success. It would be lovely if it were true. But it’s not, which is why the ‘failure followed by failure’ quadrant is rarely mentioned or addressed by the celebration-of-failure brigade. Most failure simply stays that way, and is so commonplace it’s not remarked upon. The natural response to the contents of this box is more likely to be sympathy than celebration. The associated stories are largely depressing and uninstructive.

The stories the ‘failure celebrators’ tell are selected exclusively from the ‘failure to success’ bag. They consign to the bin any mention of ‘failure to ultimate failure’ (along with ‘success first time’). There’s simply less to say when success happens on its own without the dramatic and inspiring shift from failure first.

What of the popular idea (sometimes stated, sometimes implied) that ‘There’s no success without failure first’. Again, a moment’s thought reveals it as false to say there’s no success without a preceding failure. We get lots of things right first time. Today I uploaded a new app, followed the instructions and succeeded in getting it to work. I’d learned something, done something new, with no failure or mistakes along the way. It’s not that exciting, but it often happens. And unless you feel that’s an unwelcome process, we can’t uncritically embrace a ‘Fail more’ stance. Sure, there are some circumstances in which I want to take a chance, including owning the risk that I might make mistakes along the way – I often do. But in general I have a preference for faster success and for fewer failures per accomplishment. I’d call that Embracing Success rather than Embracing Failure.

Moreover, a success is often built on previous success. This is a neglected quadrant, and tends to be especially under-rated if we give our (limited) attention to failure, rather than exploring success. Success breeds success. We can learn repeatable recipes, and re-apply what works from one domain to another, given enough similarity in the challenges, and with a dash of improvisational creativity when the difference between domains demands it.

And finally, Success is sometimes followed by failure. True, too. Hence reminders to ‘Sharpen the saw’. Stay alert. Keep learning. Keep testing for improvements if we want it to be better.

Or is success perhaps always followed by failure? Well, yes, eventually, as the entropic universe reaches heat death. Meanwhile, no! Success can last long enough to see us through, and it’s worth maintaining.