Failure is an Option

One of the life lessons that I have tried to teach my kids is the value of learning from your mistakes. I frequently remind my daughter of Thomas Edison’s famous quote when, after numerous failures in developing an electric light bulb, he was asked if he was ready to quit.  Edison replied

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Another quote that I have shared with her and even printed a copy to hang above her desk is from Winston Churchill

“Courage is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.”

More recently, I was struck by President Barak Obama’s view on failure:

“Making your mark on the world is hard. If it were easy, everybody would do it. But it’s not. It takes patience, it takes commitment, and it comes with plenty of failure along the way. The real test is not whether you avoid this failure, because you won’t. it’s whether you let it harden or shame you into inaction, or whether you learn from it; whether you choose to persevere.”

I was reminded of my many discussions with my children about failure and mistakes when I read the federal Auditor General’s report on Canada Health Infoway.   Although I wholeheartedly support and endorse Canada Health Infoway, I have long felt that they don’t  share failures or anything less than positive news.  Given the number of investments that they are making it is not reasonable to assume that they will all be roaring successes and, given the statistics on IT projects across all industries, we can expect a number of failures and only partial successes.  How are we communicating these lessons learned from these failures?  In this current era of eHealth “scandals” no sane person would want to risk media attention by admitting that IT project for which they were responsible had failed.  Too bad.  If we want to get the best return on our investments I think that we need to openly share all lessons learned and to admit, without fear of recrimination, when something goes wrong so that other can benefit.  Failure is indeed an acceptable option provided that we learn from it.  Otherwise, we have squandered our investment and have not generated any value for the money spent.


2 responses to “Failure is an Option

  1. Trevor Cradduck

    One of the more popular telehealth conferences is one that is held annually in Brisbane, Australia entitled “Successes and Failures in Telehealth”. Its popularity stems for the very fact that participants are able to share their failures without fear of recrimination. Valuable lessons are learned.
    Perhaps the Canadian eHealth conference might wish to change the track called “School of Hard Knocks” into “Successes and Failures”?

  2. Thanks, Trevor, for your comments. I’m not sure what we need to do to encourage more people to share project failures. I watching a Dyson vacuum commercial and was struck by him comments about failure. Turns out he has written about them in his autobiography “Against the odds”. A short excerpt summarizes quite well, I think, his views on the role of failure:

    “ure. I’ve always thought that schoolchildren should be marked by the number of failures they’ve had. The child who tries strange things and experiences lots of failures to get there is probably more creative…

    We’re taught to do things the right way. But if you want to discover something that other people haven’t, you need to do things the wrong way. Initiate a failure by doing something that’s very silly, unthinkable, naughty, dangerous. Watching why that fails can take you on a completely different path. It’s exciting, actually. To me, solving problems is a bit like a drug. You’re on it, and you can’t get off.”

    Perhaps we should get James Dyson to appear at the next eHealth conference as a keynote speaker.


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