The F-Word

I get a little tired of listening to Gen Yers blame my generation (Boomers) for all of life’s ills and woes, when I know for a fact that the problems have been around for ages (even though I tell the Gen Yers that the Democrats are to blame).

But there is one thing that, in all fairness, I think can be blamed on Boomers: The excessive use of the F-word in the business world.

Using the F-word in a business situation used to be unacceptable. But increasingly throughout the 90s and first decade of the new century, not only did more and more business people use the F-word, but authors of management articles and books began writing about it.

The icing on the cake — or perhaps it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back — is the April 2010 issue of the Harvard Business Review which was entirely dedicated to the F-word.

And thus, once taboo to use in the workplace, this simple 7-letter word is now an accepted part of the jargon.

Pardon? Yes, I did say 7-letter word. What are you talking about? I’m talking about FAILURE.

Somehow or other, in the past 20 years or so, it’s become acceptable — if not fashionable — to fail.

In the HBR issue, there’s one article titled “Strategies  for Learning from Failure,” and another titled “Failing By Design.” An interview with P&G’s former CEO quotes him as saying “I think of my failures as a gift.”

What a load of crap. This celebration of failure is born out of the mentality that awards every one  a trophy for “trying.”

In business, we reward people who succeed. In my Shevlin Business Review, the articles will be titled “Strategies for Learning How To Repeat Your Successes” and “Succeeding By Design.” The quote from the interview with me will read: “I think of my failures as….well, f**king failures.”

Part of the problem with this ridiculous obsession with failure is that there is no easy way to define or recognize a failure.

For example, it’s often stated that some really high percentage of CRM implementations “fail.” What does that mean? That the project didn’t produce the intended return on investment? Is that the fault of the project, or the fault of the person who mis-estimated the ROI?

Did the effort produce nothing or has it just not produced something?

If the effort been producing nothing, has no one thought to alter the tactics and course of the initiative?

In other words, at what point do you decide that something has been a “failure”? [Please note that in Boomer Political Correctness school, I was taught to never call anyone a failure].

We can simply avoid the whole topic of “failure” by categorizing every initiative as an “experiment.” That way, if it “fails”, our butts are covered.

The design consultancy IDEO has been credited with coining the phrase “fail often in order to succeed sooner.”

There’s some stupidity for you.

It’s like thinking that the more times you flip a coin and it comes up heads, the closer you are to getting a tails. The odds are the same on every flip, folks. Failing 10 times in a row doesn’t increase the odds of success on the 11th try.

I shouldn’t be complaining about this, though. This obsession with the F-word might produce a new segment of the consulting industry: Failure consultants. Consultants who will help you fail.

I could be good at that.


7 thoughts on “The F-Word

  1. One of the main reasons why I moved back to NYC from SF was my distaste for what I call the Bay Area’s “Culture of Acceptable Failure.”

    Folks in Silicon Valley start up businesses (and fund them) with the understanding that “9 out of 10 will fail”. While in NY’s “Silicon Alley”, I think we really do live by the motto that “failure is not an option.”

    With that said – the lovers, the dreamers, the “really big idea” people seem to all be out on the left coast. We NYers more likely to succeed, but at a smaller scale than the 1 in 9 in the Bay Area that do.

    Yours f-ckin’ truly,

  2. I’ll reply to your rant against fail-lust with a clipping from an article about fail-lust

    “9. You are not special, a winner, or guaranteed squat (and neither is your business). If you are human, guess what? You are still bound by the rules of Darwin’s theory of evolution or, at the very least, Murphy’s Law. The worst thing you can do is fall for your own b.s., so stay focused, stop thinking you are a winner because you’re excited and think your idea is brilliant, and go kick some real ass.”

    With a particular focus on the “fall for your own b.s.” thing. I think that matters a lot. Like you say about the scientific method, thinking of things as experiments matters. But if my experiment is “I have to get blood out of a stone”, and I try a million different ways and they all fail, my “I can do anything!” attitude is the wrong one to have. Optimism is great, but realistic expectations are better. I learn a lot from people who have had ACTUAL SUCCESS talking about the times they’ve crapped the bed. Humility is something you can’t have too much of in your life.

  3. There is a former NPR radio show host named Tavis Smiley who has captured his “failing for success” philosophy in his self-help book, “Fail Up”:

    Talk about mollycoddling and enabling… “You’re a loser, but don’t feel bad because that just means you’re one step closer to being a winner.” “Buck up Sparky. You can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs!”

    Saccharine platitudes and feel-good bromides.

  4. Brilliant…The best line is, “The quote from the interview with me will read: “I think of my failures as….well, f**king failures.” I think you have hit the nail on the head. Thank you for making a drab day a touch brighter.

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