Failure* should be part of your CV (*= fast intelligent failure)

20130911-225026.jpgNow that’s a statement that might cause a few recruitment consultants and career coaches to splutter into their skinny macchiato. Surely its all about winning and trumpeting your success, isn’t it?

Admitting to failure, and claiming it as some sort of achievement is a pretty alien concept. In many organisations the approach to failure is often a combination of; find someone to blame, deny it ever happened or bury the evidence (fast and deep).

Well, there is a different point of view. In this TEDx video Professor Jack Matson talks about the need to embrace ‘fast intelligent failure’ and avoid ‘slow stupid failure’.

There are a number of reasons why embracing failure might be good for you:

  • Its where you learn most. You might recognise this from your own experiences. I do, and in this post I’ve tried to demonstrate that the greater the emotional pain of failure, the more you learn.
  • It leads to improvement. It’s part of a virtuous cycle of improvement: fail, make improvements, try again etc etc. Apparently Edison tried 1000 times and made 999 improvements before the light bulb was perfected.
  • It supports innovation. The experiences and learning from failure lead to; new ideas, unplanned and unintended innovations and new products.
  • It helps build resilience. Experiencing small, low cost, relatively safe failures is a good way of building up your understanding of what failure feels like and develops resilience. Experiencing a huge failure as a first time event could have a more detrimental impact than if you’ve only ever succeeded in the past.
  • It can be a motivator. For some people the experience of failure might be the motivation they require to drive them forwards.
  • It teaches you some humility. An odd one this, but not everyone can be a winner. Understanding what it feels like to fail might help some of life’s ‘born winners’ to be a bit more compassionate and understanding.

Just to prove I’m not alone in my new obsession with failure here are a few examples of where failure has been used successfully (if that statement makes sense….)

Jack Matson Failure 101. During the 1980s and 1990s Jack Matson taught engineering students to deliberately fail. The TEDx video and this article from the Chicago Tribune give a taste of what lead up to his 1996 book, ‘Innovate or Die’. The concept of ‘intelligent fast failure’ where you rapidly test new ideas, learn from failures and apply the learning to the next situation is explained in the book.

Trojan Mice and Safe to Fail Experiments. Dave Snowden introduced me to the concept of safe to fail experiments which I’ve written about previously as ‘Trojan Mice’. When I last saw him present he described the criteria for setting up safe to fail pilots which included the requirement that some pilots are actually designed to fail. The graphic I’ve used at the start of the post was created at Dave’s talk.

The Institute of Brilliant Failures. This is a ‘brilliant’ website that provides all sorts of information on failures, the sort of website you can spend a lot of time browsing (beware). I was particularly interested in The Museum of Failed Products which is a collection of consumer products, of which apparently 90% have failed. This Guardian article, where The Museum is also featured, discusses some of the disadvantages of being relentlessly positive, rather that a bit of stoicism is well worth reading.

Even Honda are Failing. This is an interesting video from Honda; ‘Failure -The Secret of Success’. A number of the Honda people talk in the video about how they have experienced some fairly major failures, and how they all seemed to lead on to something bigger and better. The most interesting thing for me was the organisational culture that seems to support this. It must be very liberating to work in that sort of environment; but I do have to wonder, where are the Six Sigma people?

Churchill knew it. “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm”. Its always good to end on a Churchill quote.

I would like to thank some people who provided some inspiration in writing this post:

Failure Dynamics for pointing me in the direction of Jack Matson

Mark Hodder (@MarkHodder555) for the link to the Museum of Failed Products

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. Lots or organisations (and people) could benefit from more openly accepting that failure does happen.
  2. Doing things in a ‘safe to fail’ environment might help to encourage innovation and build up resilience to future failures.
  3. Above all, go ahead and stick it on your CV. Failure is a great way of showing that you’ve learnt something.

Picture Source: Wales Audit Office seminar with Dave Snowden. Graphics by

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

12 Responses

  1. olwenmhughes

    Chris at some point, I’d like to introduce you to Joseph Campbell and his hero mono myth. Unless you have met him (and it) already, of course. This suggests that to fail is divine and heroic. I understand Richard Dawkins as saying failure is a condition upon which evolution depends, Dave S may have views! Thing is, humanity has named it and separated it.

  2. I really support this concept, as a career counsellor, when I have an interview prep session, I encourage clients to share their lessons learnt openly when they use examples to support their responses. It demonstrates a high level of not only self awareness but also they have learnt from that particular approach. It’s about what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

  3. Really like this post. As a career coach, I have found that avoiding failure is probably the No 1 reason why people ‘fail’ to reach their goals and aspirations. For the average person to become more comfortable and accepting of the need to fail in order to really succeed in life, it will help enormously if more employers and recruiters can openly and genuinely welcome this concept too!

  4. Really interesting stuff! It’s been an education at our Shared Learning Seminars, as someone who’s just started here I wasn’t prepared for just how brutally honest people are about what they would change were they to start their projects again. Whilst it’s not a CV, it’s often the first time presenters meet participants, and to recognise failiure is a bold, but really useful step. It certainly builds trust and allows us to place the big successes into context.

    – Dyfrig

  5. […] I’ve mentioned this before. Basically it is a venture started in the 1960′s by Robert McMath who worked in marketing and started collecting examples of consumer products for a reference library. When it became too large he moved to a converted granary. It now holds over 110,000 individual, health, beauty, food and other products collected over 40 years. The collection is increasing at around 400 new products a month and is run nowadays by GfK Custom Research North America, at Ann Arbor in Michigan if you fancy a visit. […]

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