Not talking’ ’bout…

It’s a feature of modern corporate and public life that we don’t mention the ‘f’ word. Not that ‘f’ word of course – nowadays that one’s dropped into casual conversation without a second thought. No, I mean the other ‘f’ word – failure.

When it’s close to home people don’t like talking about failure. In the same way that ‘problem’ has been excised from the business lexicon (to be replaced with ‘challenge’ or ‘hurdle’), so ‘failure’ is masked , usually by someone in an influential position demanding that ‘we need to look to the future, not dwell on the past’.

We’re told that looking back isn’t healthy (except when we want to remind ourselves about the stuff that went well), that it doesn’t help us get to the shinning future now on offer. We’re moving forward. Together. And never mind about that unmentionable thing now disappearing in the rearview mirror.

But wait! Don’t we learn from our mistakes? Don’t we get better when we confront our shortcomings and make tough changes?

Well, of course we do. And, of course, there are powerful social and cultural reasons why we’re encouraged to keep our eyes on the road ahead (tight project timelines or national face-saving, perhaps).

But sometimes it’s a shield that’s mis-used, wheeled out to divert attention from wrong doing or incompetence. I have precisely zero evidence to back up that statement, but I’ll happily stand by it because I believe it’s only human nature to try and dodge the bullet. The point is this: we’re talking about a survival mechanism that has informed the rules and structures that shape our great institutions, allowing huge amounts of waste and risk to be hidden away.

Waste is one thing – sunk cost, too bad. But risk? That’s something else – that’s future cost or, to think about it another way, past failure that’s not finished hurting yet.

Something, I would suggest, that is worth talking about.

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