Failure porn

I came across the phrase “failure porn” in this post by Cassie Robinson of a Facebook conversation. She prompted it with some challenging points about the closing of The Amazings. I hadn’t come across that site before, it’s a social enterprise aimed at getting elders to pass on their craft skills to others.

It’s a lively debate about failure and learning from it. The idea of failure porn, as I understand it, is that sometimes failure is championed as if it’s a great thing in itself, and perhaps the lessons allegedly learned from it may not be based on really incisive criticism. The failure is tturned into a mock-success and no one’s any the wiser. I’d say that often the most powerful players have a knack of bouncing back unscathed, often to repeat the mistakes.

Dominic Campbell refers to this article on a related theme: why innovators need a word other than failure.

I think most management ideas and abstractions are likely to spawn “porn” versions, shortcuts that feed the ego of the speaker while missing the useful intention of the original idea. As Dom says, we end up in games of “my failure is bigger than yours”. Our old friends grandiosity, vanity and delusion sail in under the flag of truth.  I’m not entirely sure that having another word is going to help much.

Another theme of the conversation is the tendency for public bodies to invest a bit recklessly in projects with grand ambitions. In being well funded, these frequently (some would say almost always) over-reach and under-deliver, compared to humbler offerings.  Reminds me of Donald Clark’s distinction:

First, there’s what I call MOSQUITO projects, that sound buzzy but lack leadership, real substance, scalability and sustainability, and they’re short-lived, often dying as soon as the funding runs out or academic paper is published. Then there’s TURTLES, sometimes duller but with substance, scalability and sustainability, and they’re long-lived

Another theme is the hunger to scale, which seems to lead to over-committing to unproven but high sounding methods. In my experience, the question,  “but how will that scale” is often an effective way to kill off interesting ideas that might benefit from a bit more oxygen, and going with safer ones that will eventually underwhelm.

I experience a version of this with big meetings, where ambitions are set very high and sometimes mismatch the reality of people’s level of commitment and capacity. The trouble is when a grand scheme fails, many of the participants feel too far implicated to really take responsibility and there can be an understandable urge to duck accountability and finger-point.

2 thoughts on “Failure porn

  1. Pingback: Interesting elsewhere - 14 January 2014 « Public Strategist Public Strategist

  2. Pingback: Hack culture and the death of strategic research? (2/3) - Stripe Partners | Stripe Partners

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