Make more misstakes #failfaire

by Rima Alcadi

Picture of Tim Harford, by Barbara Gravelli
Tim Harford is an economist. Tim is also: a member of the Financial Times editorial board; a broadcaster; an award-winning speaker (see his TED-Talk); Winner of the 2006 Bastiat Prize for economic journalism; author of several books, including The Undercover Economist and Adapt; and the only economist in the world to run a problem page, called 'Dear Economist'. As of 29 October 2013, Tim is also the first speaker at IFAD’s first Fail-Faire!

What did Tim talk to us about?

Tim told us to make more mistakes. This is because if we do anything worthwhile doing, we will inevitably make mistakes. Therefore, we also need to learn how to manage these mistakes. He told us about Twyla Tharp’s musical “Movin' Out” - a jukebox musical featuring the songs of Billy Joel. The show was unusual: all the vocals were performed by a pianist and band while the dancers acted out the songs dialogue. It was an innovation, it was difficult to implement and it required a lot of collaboration. Tharp was working with music she was not familiar with and she was breaking down barriers. The musical was initially labelled a total and catastrophic failure – “embarrassingly naïve”, “hideous failure” were some of the adjectives used by renowned critics to describe it. Moreover, her failure was incredibly public.

If you do not fail, you are not being innovative, you are not being creative and not doing anything new. But why is it so difficult to admit and to fix a failure? There are 4 obstacles to productive failure:

1. Conformity. The power of seeking conformity is compelling, as humorously demonstrated by Solomon Asch back in 1950s (see Asch was fascinated by the issue of conformity. Asch concluded that people conform because they doubt themselves as everybody else is doing something else and/or because they don’t want to make a fuss and go against the crowd. And there is an enormous stake involved in agreeing with our colleagues: Asch demonstrated that we conform even when there is nothing to lose, so imagine how much harder it is not to conform when our career and self-image are on the line! What is the cure to this – how can the pressure to conform be eased? Well, it turns out that when we are not alone in disagreeing, then it becomes much simpler to voice our true opinions. A single person in the room who voices a different opinion is enough to enable us to deviate as well. Promoting diversity in opinions is thus tremendously important to create creative ideas: so one person voicing a different opinion (even if wrong!) is bringing in enormous value by breaking the spell of conformity and allowing us all to express ourselves more freely.

2. Poor feedback loops. We can only find out if something is a good idea by providing feedback. When feedback loops are bad, it is impossible to find out if something is good or bad. Ensuring that there are good feedback loops is extremely important.

3. Consequences. Sometimes the benefits of success may be small but the risk of failure is quite large. We don’t really want innovations in certain kinds of systems. For instance, in nuclear power plants, we don’t really want people innovating in areas that could lead to failures. We need to ensure that we take adequate stock of what are the possible consequences of failure. Most of the time we will find that the consequences are small, and it is certainly worth innovating.

4. Our own psychology. When we invest a lot of time and energy on something, we have the tendency to carry on rather than admit we are wrong. This is referred to as the “sunk cost bias”: it implies persisting with bad decisions as a result of our irrational attachment to costs that cannot be recovered any longer. This means that we are often not willing to admit we failed and learn from our experience, so then we risk throwing good money after bad money.

Tim talked about what it takes to fail in a complex world, and about the fact that it is “normal” for development-related activities to fail. We all acknowledged that the risks of failing are very high for us, because ultimately we are meant to support poor people overcome poverty. Tim’s point in this regard was not to invite us to fail more, but to expect to fail (as failure is inevitable) and admit when we do. Tim’s advice is: fail forward, fail faster, fail productively.

So what happened to Twyla Tharp and her musical “Movin' Out”? Well, Tharp had to admit that the critics were right. She decoupled the criticism from her ego and turned it into constructive advice – which she followed. A few weeks later, the show was completely reconfigured and re-designed. And then she got very good reviews and the musical was labelled a great success – to everybody’s astonishment, especially the critics’. That’s how Tharp failed forward, rather than backward: she quickly learned from her failure and kept movin'.