Failure differently

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

The above quote, allegedly from psychologist Viktor Frankl*, highlights that while we cannot control what happens to us, we can still direct and influence what and who we become through our subsequent actions and decisions. It reminds us that who we are is not fixed – we can grow and become.

The statement can probably be applied to most situations in life. But I think it becomes increasingly critical to remind ourselves of this opportunity, this space, when we encounter situations that undermine or run opposite to that which we want to achieve. In the world of safety, these things are injuries, incidents, accidents, errors, near misses, breakdowns and other failures or unwanted outcomes.

Such failures are commonly reacted to as if they are somehow indications that people and organisations do not have what it takes. As if failures somehow reflect on our value and worth as individuals, teams and organisations. That they show that we are incapable, incompetent, weak, or do not care enough. And when failures are given this meaning, the remedying actions that follow are typically about weeding out weaknesses, about mustering more force – constraining people and operations even tighter, of increasing uniformity and repetition, and increasing disciplinary actions. We call for more accountability. Clearer lines. Better conduct. We put our reactive hopes in making operations more predictable, or even perfect perhaps, by making more detailed plans, to nip all problematic performances by coming down hard enough on them to push them inside the boundaries of acceptable performance. This way we gradually give up the space for human expertise, ad-hoc judgements, and potential. And we end up with ever growing number of procedures in its place.

But, what if failures were given a different meaning? Following the lines of Carol Dweck’s work of Fixed and Growth mindset (2016), failures can equally be seen as indications that we are not reaching our potential. That there is more complexity to be understood and embraced. As such, failures can be seen as informative rather than threats to our value and self-image. Failures can be seen as an invitation to learn and become wiser. That we are given a chance to grow, as individuals and as organisations.

As long as we allow the weakness elimination approach to reign we will continue to be configured and constrained into a compliance, people unfriendly, fear driven, potential discarding approach to what happens at work. So, how can we practically relate to failure differently? Below I’ve outlined a few ideas to ‘claim a space’ for a different path in the wake of failures, a path that hopefully leads to more growth and responsibility for who we become next.


Normalise failure

Stop seeing failures as bastard outcomes that are somehow different to what normally occurs in the organisation. The final outcome may be different, but the processes involved in the web of events are in all likelihood the same sort of processes that inform everyday performance, and even success (Hollnagel, 2014). So, start seeing ‘failures’ as expressions of normal work. In practice this means that you don’t investigate isolated events or pursue root causes, but you investigate to address the conditions and events that necessitate performance to vary. Read Steven Shorrock’s post on The use and abuse of Human Error as an inspiring case study of how even disaster comes out of normal work and acceptable conditions. Or sign up to one of Bob Edwards Operational Learning Team courses and learn a structured method for normalising incident. You may also start measuring the number of times the failed activity has gone right to give you some perspective, and start asking question how those successful outcomes happen. Alternatively, just get out there and start investigating how normal work occurs happens, what people are dependent on. Soon, you are likely to discover that normal work can be equally messy and surprising as what you discover in the wake of an accident.


Fear what matters

There are so many things to be afraid and mindful of in a safety critical work environment, and the fear of leaders’ reactions to failure does not need to be part of this (Marquet, 2010). So, turn an appreciative lens when reacting to failures. For example, when people bring mistakes and errors to your attention, say ‘thank you for letting me know’ or something else that signifies that people are doing the right thing by telling you. Express your care foremost about the person(s) involved in the unwanted outcomes,  i.e. do what you can to increase the likelihood that you will get more and better information flows in the future around failures and other matters. Build towards an understanding that failures can happen to any of us. There’s no need to congratulate people for having failures but be ready to share failures of your own, and how much they sucked, how much you learned over time.


Invest in trust

People don’t come to work to create accidents or suffer injuries. Trust this basic assumption, but go further. Assume that people have good intentions, that they want to take responsibility, that people need opportunities to adapt on the spot, to develop expertise. It’s a good thing. So, give people a chance to fix things, to contribute to the betterment of the workplace and of themselves. This may also involve playing defence against those higher up the hierarchy or on the outside that may want to ‘take charge’ and deal with failure as weakness.


Fix the work environment

Don’t try to fix people. We need diversity in personality, backgrounds, beliefs, experiences and attitudes. Besides, fixing people is really hard. If you want better decisions, provide a better decision making environment. If you want more responsibility and ownership, give more control and authority. Ie fix the work environment (Conklin, 2012). So when you are tempted to ‘control’ people after an incident, ask yourself what environmental context you as a leader did not set, or what context may have altered how things happened. Alternatively, examine what people tried to achieve when the failure occurred and collect ideas for different ways of achieving that, or what changes to the environment can increase the likelihood of achieving that outcome (and keep an eye on what other outcomes such changes will also impact). What haven’t you thought about that could make work easier, better, less of a struggle, more successful more often?


Fail more often, fail small

In line with the Silicon Valley notion of ‘fail often, fail fast’, encourage micro-experiments. These are small, low cost, controlled variations of doing things. Then you throw chaos (ie normal life) at them and keep a close eye on what happens. If they work, fantastic. If they fail, fantastic too. Then you know, from only a limited investments (Rosenthal et al, 2017). If possible, figure out why they didn’t work and try again. This is a necessary remedy to the generic band aid solutions that are produced in the wake of failures (or at least a delay thereof).

What are your thoughts and experiences of ways to embrace failure differently?

* In 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey attributed the quote to Viktor Frankl. In a preface to a later book, Covey explained that he had been unable to verify the the actual source of this quote other than from his own notes.



Conklin. T. (2012). Pre-Accident Investigations. An Introduction to Organizational Safety

Dweick, C. (2016). Mindset: The new psychology of success.

Hollangel, E. (2014). Safety I and Safety II. The past and future of safety management.

Marquet. D. (2013). Turn the Ship Around! A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders.

Rosenthal, C., Hochstein, L., Blohowiak, A., Jones, N., & Basiri, A (2017). Chaos Engineering. Building Confidence in System Behavior through Experiments



  1. Norman Ritchie Reply

    Agree wholeheartedly with the thrust of this article. Just want to point out that the words attributed to Frankl don’t reflect some current thinking on how the brain works. Between stimulus and response there is a space where we may or may not choose our response, depending on whether we are operating in fast or slow thinking mode. The limbic (fast) brain responds to stimulus much faster than the slow brain, and will have generated an action in response to the stimulus before the slow brain even starts considering how to respond.
    Norman Ritchie

  2. Peter Zmuda Reply

    Love your work as always Daniel. Normalising failure is an absolute shift in mindset and language. The fact it’s called ‘failure’ triggers a bias that has been imprinted in us from an early age. I can’t help but wonder whether the current trend of mollycoddling children to fear failure rather than accept it as part of normal life will result in making the shift harder in the future. After recently spending a lot of time investigating trust, I have a better appreciation of how being purposeful in building trusting relationships and understanding the balance of interest of others allows us to feel more comfortable with the smaller ‘failures’ or uncomfortable if trust is absent. I’ve been away from the SD scene for a little while and this post was a great reintroduction… Thanks.

  3. Rob Sams Reply

    Thanks for sharing Daniel. I too feel there is much that we can learn when things don’t go to plan, and also from exploring the ‘space’ between stimulus and response. This ‘space’ described be could be filled with many things; perhaps that could also be understood paradoxically and through a dialectical way of understanding?

    I wonder if this is something that we can also take into our learning in risk and safety? That is, while on the one hand there are (conscious) ‘choices’ we make; that these need to co-exist with the many other (mostly unconscious) factors that also influence us? After all, we are social beings and while there may be a temptation to consider our decisions only through an individualistic and cognitive approach (e.g. when some people suggest ‘Safety is a choice we make’), perhaps they also need to be understood socially?

    This is another quote from Viktor E. Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning that may help us in understanding and dealing with this in understanding risk:

    “By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic “the serf-transcendence of human existence.” It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself–be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself–by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love–the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.” (2004, p.89-90

    1. Daniel Hummerdal Post author Reply

      Thanks for your thoughts Rob. Perhaps the first step is not any of the things I listed in the post, but rather the creation of the space – to invite and sense all kinds of ‘relations’ (people, processes, events, conditions, tools, constraints, historical events) and collaborative explore these, to lean into the unknown future (as Otto Scharmer probably would say) and let it emerge.

  4. rodcurrey Reply

    Agree with Viktor’s quote and its philosophy of not being able to control others but can influence outcomes on how we respond to conundrums we face.

    Sea turtles lay on average a 100 eggs per nesting and somtimes nest 3-4 times a year. The survival rate of the hatchlings to sexual mature age is 1%. They lay their eggs on beaches and leave the hatchlings to to fend for themselves.

    They bury their eggs as they are at their most vulnerable at that stage and can be kept at the suitable temperature and protected from predators in that environment.

    The turtle doesn’t try to fix or change the seagulls or other birds that feed on their hatchling as the make their dash to the water, nor does the turtle try to fix or change the fish that feed on them either. But turtles respond to the environment by burying their eggs and producing more hatchlings knowing the predators cannot devour 100% of the turtle hatchlings.

    They are not in fear of what they stand to lose, but accept it and have planned for that loses will occur. These failures are a ‘normal’ part of the turtles reproductive processes as they account for these failures by ensuring they play the numbers game in laying 3-400 eggs per year to ensure at least 3-4 turtles live to make maturity and the cycle continues and ensures the survival of the species.

    We need to look closer on how safety and risk is dealt with by nature, under natural law. Cheers.

  5. Rob Long Reply

    If you frame your discourse in binary behaviourist language you are going to fail splendidly. If you frame safety in the discourse of choice you will fail even more.

  6. Ben Kirkbride Reply

    Bravo! Daniel. Bravo!

    James Dyson – explains learning from failure beautifully here in this short clip.

    I recently finished another book by Simon Sinek, a quote in his book ‘Leaders eat Last’ read, “We can respect people even if we disagree with them. Feel free to disapprove of actions but remember to show respect for what inspires others”.
    When reading your post, I thought about the purity of trust in this context, particularly at work amongst colleagues, workers and other related professionals. In safety, there seems to be unwritten law that the things we prescribe as professionals ‘work’. This is somewhat true for a couple of reasons;
    ⁃ Experimentation, through our experiences of trial and error (i.e. systems, training, process, innovations) we tend to assess what works and what doesn’t, this is natural for humans – we also tend to go back to the things that work (rightly or wrongly)
    ⁃ Conviction, the confidence and belief in the truth, the existence, or the reliability of what is prescribed, although sometimes, without absolute proof that what we’re doing is right until the results are determined (even then the value may still be distorted for some)
    At this point, mutual respect and trust is absolutely key. The intrinsic nature of people to offer solutions, workarounds, different ways of performing tasks, variations to normal work and/or micro-experiments, will only ever become a lived experience, if the inspired method is believable enough, respected enough and a sense of trust is evident amongst both blunt and sharp end users. This is the difference between a perceived innovation, through mutual acceptance of a trial and a violation of a safe work practice, unknown attempt to trial something new.
    This is often the perception when we observe practices which are outside our ‘work as imagined’ framework, as the said person is seen to be ‘not performing work as we prescribed’. On the other hand, if a trial method is well prepared and understood by all parties, acceptance entitles a positive perceived value however trust is critical.
    Professionals need not prescribe more of the same, people will continue to do the same regardless of any new prescribed method, because belief comes what they know, not from what they don’t. Don’t get me wrong, what you have may work and continue to rely on whatever that this, just don’t be constrained by it and continue to experiment.
    We all need to work on building more trustworthiness. An Italian social scientist, Diego Gambetta once said, “trust has two enemies: poor information and bad character. Once these two things have depleted, trust is lost very quickly”.
    So, my final takeaways, show some respect for those who offer solutions (big or small), learn to fail better, create the space for an acceptance to informed variability and work hard in raising your trust profile. 😉

    1. Daniel Hummerdal Post author Reply

      Thanks for you thoughtful reply Ben. Our belief in best practice, standardised methods, and other versions of the one best way, can be seductive and create a blindness to the contextual adaptations that are required to make things work in everyday performance. A blindness that we are likely to lose or when up from only when control is lost. Furthermore, it replaces or at least marginalises the trust that we tacitly rely on to get things done. Even more so if ‘the one best way’ is onesidedly enforced following a failure. As such learning from normal work is certainly an easier place to start to build trust.
      ps loved the dyson story!

  7. Tony Morris Reply

    Still going on Anzac Day public holiday I see Daniel! I really like this article, so much so I shared with some clients and my Reputational Risk and Resilience team. We all have the power to choose how we respond…may it be a growth and continual learning response

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