That Which Does Not Kill Us Makes Us Stronger. Beneficial Accidents and Survivable Failure

Del Boy Trotter, Risk Management Advisor, Del Boy Trotter, Risk Management Advisor, “Who Dares Wins”

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger” A terrible confession to start… I thought it was Del Boy Trotter; Risk Management Advisor (“who dares wins”) and famous Peckham Philosopher who said this. Actually it was Friedrich Nietzsche, the famous German Philosopher (1844-1900), but you all knew that. 

We all know it makes sense… some minor trauma, a failure or a setback (provided you learn some lessons from it) will improve things for the future; making us stronger, cleverer, more skilful, more resilient. Nietzsche coined the phrase in the late 1800’s and we’ve been quoting it ever since. However, there didn’t seem to be much empirical research to prove this was the case, until recently…

Buffalo University USA, Mark D. Seery. The 2010 research by Seery, Holman and Silver, ‘Whatever Does Not Kill Us: Cumulative Lifetime Adversity, Vulnerability and Resilience’ looked at the impact of negative events on the lives of almost 2400 people.

My interpretation of the conclusions they came up with are:

  1. If you have no trauma or difficulties in your life then you aren’t very well equipped to deal with something bad when it happens.
  2. If you have lots of difficulties (chronic exposure) you are in a pretty bad place full stop. More trauma or difficulty just adds to the misery.
  3. The right amount of bad stuff means you develop resilience that allows you to cope much better with any future difficulties. A sort of ‘Goldilocks Zone’ of bad stuff – not too much, not too little…..’just right’.

All a bit like taking well-managed risks, learning from failure, beneficial accidents and Trojan Mice….

Trojan Mice ‘Safe to Fail’ Pilots Run in Parallel.
Full graphic at end of post (*no actual mice were harmed in the process)

What are Beneficial Accidents and Trojan Mice?  Trojan Mice mice is a metaphor for an approach you can use when testing ideas in a complex situation. Explained as ‘safe to fail pilots’ by Dave Snowden; multiple test pilots that are run in parallel. 

‘Safe to Fail’ means that any failure is fully ‘survivable’ and some pilots might actually be designed to fail. The whole point is that you test the situation and learn incredibly valuable things from the pilots and any failures. By conducting this process with multiple tests in parallel you are able to scale up what works and ‘kill off’ (I prefer the word ‘dampen’) what doesn’t. I have talked about this before in: 5 Differences Between Trojan Horses and Trojan Mice and What’s Eating the Trojan Mice.

Recently Trojan Mice were part of a workshop I was running on ‘Well Managed Risks’ at the Welsh Public Services Summer School (#SSWales on Twitter) which, by the way was inspiring and an incredible opportunity to learn and share ideas.  Whilst I was explaining the benefits of ‘safe to fail’ Trojan Mice and ‘survivable failure’ one of the delegates shared the concept of ‘Beneficial Accidents’……. the same sort of thing, accidents where you learn a huge amount, but it doesn’t actually do you any significant harm.

The area she worked in was Children’s Play, and we all quickly started sharing stories of falling out to trees and other escapades that taught us so much as children. It’s obvious really, but why isn’t the approach widespread in the world of work?

The lady who shared the idea of Beneficial Accidents said it was a phrase that had been used by people from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), and also shared a document from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) with me (thank you Cathryn).

Children’s Play and Leisure – Promoting a Balanced Approach from the HSE is well worth reading in you are at interested in how to approach learning from failure and  well-managed risk taking. Just have a look at this section on ‘striking the right balance’ from the document – if you replaced the ‘play’ references with ‘corporate’ I think it would work quite nicely as a guide to what ‘well managed risks’ look like.

HSE Play and Leisure Guidance Mistakes and Accidents WILL Happen! HSE Play and Leisure Guidance
Mistakes and Accidents WILL Happen!

Well Managed Risks and Failure. Getting back to where this all started:

  • Doing things differently involves some sort of risk (“who dares wins” – Del Boy Trotter)
  • Risk Management is not about eliminating risk
  • In a complex environment, multiple ‘safe to fail pilots’ (Trojan Mice) are a good idea
  • Failures is great for learning, but needs to be survivable (Beneficial Accidents)
  • If it hasn’t killed you, it will probably make you stronger (Nietzsche & the HSE?)

In August I’m taking part in a session in Cardiff which is looking at Practical Strategies for Learning from Failure with Shirley Ayres, Roxanne Persaud and Paul Taylor. It’s a pilot for something we plan to do Leeds in the Autumn. If this sort of thing interests you – tickets are available here: Practical Strategies for Learning from Failure #LFFdigital

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. No risk = do nothing = extinction
  2. Learning from failure / averse incidents helps you in the long-term, and helps build resilience
  3. The ‘Beneficial Accidents’ approach and HSE guidance on children’s play could be used for approaching ‘Well Managed Risks’ is the corporate world.

Here is the full graphic of Trojan Horse v Trojan Mice from Summer School. Thanks to Paul  Richardson of for this.


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:

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