You know that one guy who always finds someone to throw under the bus when things go wrong? Megan McArdle calls him a blamestormer, and warns that a company that practices blamestorming will end up in failure.
For Bloomberg View , McArdle writes on economics, business, and public policy. Her first book, “The Upside of Down,” (Viking, 2014) is about learning to accept failure as an option and to see its potential as a contributor to growth and improvement, both as an individual and as an organization.
We sat down with McArdle to discuss some of her own experiences with failure – and success! – and how people and companies can learn to fail better.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO WRITE A BOOK ABOUT FAILURE AND FAILING WELL?
I’ve had more than my share of experiences with failure. I got through them, and looking back I realized that those failures had set me up for bigger and more important successes.
When I was just starting to write articles for The Economist, I covered bankruptcy reform. I realized how important bankruptcy is to making the economy work well, and to helping us create an entrepreneurial culture. The theme of “failing can clear the desk and make the space for new amazing things” was the germ of the book.
EXPLAIN THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN A FAILURE, A MISTAKE, AND AN ACCIDENT, AND HOW ONE CAN POTENTIALLY LEAD TO THE OTHER.
An accident is something bad that happens, but there was no way to prevent it. If you are walking down the street and an air conditioner rolls out the window and falls on your head, it might be someone else’s failure, but not yours personally.
A mistake is where you’ve done something that you shouldn’t have done that exposed you to unnecessary danger, but it didn’t necessarily result in a bad outcome. We tend to focus more on accidents rather than mistakes because with accidents we can see the visible thing that happened; with mistakes, we can’t always see the negative outcome.
A failure is something where you have a bad process and then something bad happened. This is where you need to learn the lesson: Don’t focus on the outcome; focus on the process and how to get the best possible outcome the most possible times.
WHAT’S “BLAMESTORMING” AND HOW IS IT COUNTER-PRODUCTIVE TO ANALYZING A FAILURE?
Instead of looking deep into all of the systemic things that we could’ve done differently, we tend to just find one person that is responsible, fire them, and hope that will take care of the problem. That’s “blamestorming” and it’s a really common reaction to crisis. It’s the belief that we can locate the person who’s at fault, and fix the problem by throwing that person off the bus.
“FAILING WELL” IS A BUZZWORTHY TOPIC. WHY DO YOU THINK THIS THEME IS CATCHING ON?
It started to catch on because there is a sense among a lot of employers that risk erosion with Millennials has run amok. I think Millennials are harder working and much more focused than they are given credit for. They’re much more sensible about money in a lot of ways, but I think the down side that Millennials do have is that they are very focused on playing it safe. Not because they are somehow a lesser breed than the fine human beings that were raised in my era, but because they are responding to the incentives that have been given to them by adults.
That being said, people are legitimately worried that what this is doing is creating a workforce that isn’t capable of taking risks, that isn’t self-starting, and that isn’t as willing to go out there and try stuff.
On both sides, there’s this feeling that we have to do something because we’re really crippling ourselves; both as people and as employees.
SO HOW DO YOU DEFINE SUCCESS?
You have to define it for yourself, but I would say that success consists of genuinely having achieved something difficult.
Every single person that I know that talks about their greatest achievement also talks about the fear that they had when they started. The feeling of courage is one of the greatest feelings we will have in our lives. It is having dedicated yourself to something that you were at least a little bit afraid, having done your absolute best, and having gotten somewhere that you were trying to get. That is an experience that is open to everyone.
You can dare to do great things, and you can achieve great things if you are willing to put yourself out there and take the risk.
HOW CAN COMPANIES LEARN FROM YOUR BOOK ON HOW TO TURN THEIR FAILURES INTO EXPERIENCES THAT CAN LEAD TO SUCCESS?
The first thing is to assume that failure is an option. That means that you then have to program that in as part of normal expectations. You have to make it so that your employees understand that part of their job is trying things that might not work out.
The second thing you have to do, which I wrote about for Businessweek, is once something fails, you have to be prepared to recognize it quickly. I referred to this as embracing your Dr. No. Everyone hates that guy who can tell you why your plan is not going to work. You can let him be a distracting force in your team, or you can harness his insights. That doesn’t mean you have to let Dr. No stop everything that you’re doing, but it does mean that you have a built-in person who is analyzing all of the stuff that can go wrong. That’s really valuable information, and you should listen to that person.
Lastly, set reasonable targets for what success looks like. Be checking constantly and monitor whether you’re hitting your target. If not, figure out if it is something that can be fixed, or if it’s time to say that this is a great experiment and we learned a lot, but what we also learned is it doesn’t work.
WHAT IS ONE TAKE AWAY THAT YOU WANT YOUR READERS TO HAVE AFTER READING “THE UP SIDE OF DOWN”?
The ability to say I am not a failure; I am someone who has failed. If you look at the lives of amazing people, you will see some catastrophic screw ups. Doing things you haven’t done before entails a certain amount of screwing up, and so I want people to be able to come out not enjoying failure because no one enjoys failure, but to come out and say: “It happened. I learned a lot, but now I’m moving on.”
Buy the book!
Follow Megan on Twitter @asymmetricinfo
Contributed by Celeste Hippolyte, Staff Writer for On Bloomberg.