Failure Is Your Friend: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

2845637227_876663b5e7_oThis week’s episode is called “Failure Is Your Friend.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

This is a natural followup to last week’s episode, “The Upside of Quitting.” Why are so many people so reluctant to quit projects or jobs or relationships that have soured? One reason, Stephen Dubner argues, is that we tend to equate quitting with failure, and there’s a huge stigma attached to failure. But … should there be? In their new book Think Like a Freak, Dubner and Steven Levitt  argue that perhaps we’re not thinking clearly about failure. Failure, they say, can be your friend:

LEVITT: I always tell my students — fail quickly. The quicker you fail the more chances you have to fail at something else before you eventually maybe find the thing that you don’t fail at.

When failure is stigmatized, people will do everything they can to avoid it, often at great cost. Levitt tells the story of a large multinational retailer that was opening its first store in China — and how the company’s executives couldn’t express their misgivings to a bullish boss. Then we hear a story in which the boss’s “go fever” had far more tragic ramifications: the 1986 launch of the space shuttle Challenger. Allan McDonald, an engineer on the shuttle project and author of the book Truth, Lies, and O-Rings, tell us how his attempts to delay the launch were overruled:

McDONALD: What really happened was typical I think in large bureaucratic organizations, and any big organization where you’re frankly trying to be a hero in doing your job. And NASA had two strikes against it from the start, which one of those is they were too successful. They had gotten by for a quarter of a century now and had never lost a single person going into space, which was considered a very hazardous thing to do. And they had rescued the Apollo 13 halfway to the moon when part of the vehicle blew up. Seemed like it was an impossible task, but they did it. … So it gives you a little bit of arrogance you shouldn’t have. And a huge amount of money [was] involved. But they hadn’t stumbled yet and they just pressed on. So you really had to quote “prove that it would fail” and nobody could do that.

You might think that it would be rare that someone involved in a project could, like McDonald, foresee exactly how it might fail. But is it? And might there be a way to look around the corner and find out how you might fail before you go to the trouble of doing so?

Gary Klein has one suggestion. He is the author of Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights and a proponent of what he calls the “pre-mortem.” While many institutions conduct a post-mortem to examine why a given project has failed, Klein walks us through an exercise that can spot potential failures before things have gone wrong.

So get out there and start failing, people — failing well, failing fast, and failing productively — so that today’s failure can make way for your tomorrow’s triumph.

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  1. Matt Harmon says:

    Great podcast. I just finished the book and appreciate the interview with McDonald.
    Also, I really want to buy some Pearl Django after listening to your program.

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  2. Enter your name... says:

    I’m wondering how “fail quickly” relates to the typical undergraduate requirement that you take 30 or 40 specific classes to graduate with a given major, with serious penalties for changing your mind.

    At the state school near me, it’s not good enough to take a writing class; you have to take the writing class for your specific own major. If you are a theater major, you must obtain special written permission to take a writing class from the English department instead of from the theater department. The student I talked to said she was told by a professor that the rule is enforced for budgetary reasons: they’d rather hire another theater professor, and tell her to teach English, than let the English department get bigger.

    If we want students to “fail quickly”, then we need to stop these stupid parochial rules. A major’s requirements should be specific classes in the major itself, and general ed should be from the entire university.

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    • James says:

      The mention of college, though, reminds me of why you might not want to fail (or accept failure) too quickly. As a college freshman from a small rural school, I dumped myself into advanced physics & math courses, for which I wasn’t really prepared. Like more than half my fellow students, I could have have accepted failure and dropped out into English or Economics (where I was getting decent B grades). But I was too stubborn to accept failure that easily, persevered, and ended the spring semester with A grades – in everything but English and Economics.

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      • tyler says:

        Good job. You did fail quickly. If you were truly too stubborn to quit, you would have kept English and Economics as well as Math and Physics. But you might not have passed everything.

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      • James says:

        Oh, I did keep English & Economics, just got B’s instead of A’s in them.

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    “Look, he’s going to call me Dave. Just don’t worry about it.”

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  4. plusECON says:

    This is why I keep a blog of my personal failures: :)

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  5. Dave DeBaeremaeker says:

    Thanks for the excellent broadcast. The story of the Challenger explosion was very interesting, however the concept of the pre-mortem to be fascinating.

    I am a site reliability engineer for a company with a huge web site. Most people use part of our site every day, so when we fail, people notice. The job of my team is to ensure that never happens.

    We do not use the term pre-mortem at work, but we definitely have adopted the concept into our culture. When we design a system, we often spend more time thinking about the failure modes of the systems we support than we do about how the system runs when everything is working. We even run training scenarios where we break the system and come up with ways to fix it. Our systems are so complex that without this methodology being at the core of our approach, we would have crashed and burned years ago. Instead we are world renown for our amazing uptime and availability.

    One thing that quickly becomes obvious is that you do not understand how something works until you understand how it fails. You can’t possibly understand how to keep something up until you understand how it falls, and you can’t fix the problems until you face them. As much as you want things to never break, one thing is certain: it will break. Pre-mortems allows you to fix problems before they actually happen, so disaster scenarios become success stories of how you didn’t fail, instead of reasons to dump your stock in the company before the public finds out.

    So thank you very much for the segment on pre-mortems. I speak from experience that this sort of thinking is vital for success of a project, and without it you are just living on hope. Hope is not a strategy, and failure is guaranteed. The more one understands failure, the more one can turn it into a success story.

    I hope anyone who leads a project listens to this episode. The lessons here would pay off dividends a thousand times over.

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    • Jim says:

      I agree wholeheartedly with the concept of the pre-mortem and being able to plan for failure. However, a certain element that needs to be considered as a part of this is the frequency and impact of individual failures. Spending too much time thinking about failure scenarios can cause paralysis when it comes to actually getting the work done.

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  6. guest says:

    Signing or not signing are not the only decisions. If he had noisily resigned would they have launched? We don’t know…but then he would have been unemployable.

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  7. Shane L says:

    JK Rowling gave an interesting Harvard commencement speech on the “benefits of failure”, reflecting on her difficulties as a poor single parent in her 20s.

    I’m also reminded of a comment by Ray Harris, I think, in The History of WWII Podcast, on the desperate innovations of German generals following World War I. The victorious allies thought they knew how to fight and win a major war so they were not as eager to innovate and find new ways of fighting. Germany, though, had learned through failure that it needed to innovate. Hence its military was very effective in the early stages of World War II.

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  8. David says:

    I like the idea of an anonymous prediction market inside companies, to tease out the “real story” of the status of a project, regardless of what executives are officially saying.

    I have one concern about this, however: If employees can actually benefit monetarily by predicting failure, that could motivate them to sabotage the project, so they can collect.


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