In discussions about failure culture, there is often one powerful protagonist missing: the voice of self-criticism. It’s not easy to appease, but it is possible. A commentary on failing, the SCM event and self sabotage.
Self-talk is often the hardest. My current monologue is about my last bad buy. I have used my blender exactly twice in the past three years, and the rest of the time it’s been patiently waiting in the kitchen cabinet. My pipe dream of a new diet rich in vitamins has burst. And I’m criticizing and berating myself for it. Only in retrospect did it occur to me that maybe the bad buy could teach me a useful lesson after all. A crash-course in how to make purchasing decisions, namely: Think first! I found a similar story making the rounds on the internet. The case is attributed to ex-IBM president Thomas Watson. An IBM employee made an unwise decision, thereby losing the company around 600,000 US dollars. Deeply contrite, the man went to Thomas Watson and said: “You can throw me out right now. I made a huge mistake.” To which the IBM boss replied: “Are you crazy?” “I just invested 600,000 US dollars in training you!”.
Land of perfection
It’s an attitude doomed to failure, something from a lesser, parallel universe. We don’t want it here, not in our business world. Germany has its special “F-word”. We don’t like mistakes at all, not at home and certainly not at work. Do you remember the last time you forgot to send an attachment in an email? Think about your pulse, which probably rocketed. Even microscopic errors can have ramifications. But companies are doing a lot to take the shame out of going wrong: They are talking about it!
The stage is free for failure
Six years ago, a former colleague suggested that I thematize missteps at a supply chain management conference. But who wants to speak openly about their vulnerabilities, I thought? That’s more private than the PIN to your cash card! Our invitations were all graciously declined. The picture is different today, with flops being celebrated all round. According to their official homepage, the event company “The Failure Institute” in Mexico already has 321 branches around the world and has hosted a million visitors. The “unsuccessful”—company founders, managers and employees alike—tell the story of their fiascos, lost money and job disasters. The format is bold and breaks down the stigma surrounding failure and the myth that making an error is a serious crime.
Errors part and parcel of career progression
In July, SCM DigiNetwork also cautiously held an event on goofing up. I talked to Priska Göbel-Ralph, one of the organizers of the Failure Night. “Originally we had planned a live event in a cool location, with a darkened, evening-like atmosphere”, she explained. I get it: Intimate conversations don’t like to be exposed by the harsh midday sun. On a Monday at 6:00 PM, three speakers in Nuremberg were streamed out into the world via MS Teams. “The Global Development Program and we from the SCM DigiNetwork wanted to give a platform to people who had made mistakes and still managed to build up a successful career.” Matthias Weidinger (HR Business Partner), Jens Eckert (Digital Industries Procurement) and Thomas Holzner (Supply Chain Management, Founder of DigiNetwork) told their stories of supposed defeat. Whether at work or in personal relationships. Göbel-Ralph sums up: “Mistakes are not career killers. It’s all part of the course.”
Perhaps we should turn off the noise and tune in to ourselves more. Have a bit of positive self-talk. It could be that our toughest critics aren’t the others, but ourselves. Maybe the tender buds of a positive culture of errors can only truly blossom if we overcome the internal barriers of zero tolerance for defects. A professor of mine once perceptively observed: “It’s delusional to think we can always do everything perfectly first time.” Recently, I was chatting to a friend who is a hobby apiarist. In her first year, her honey bees behaved completely opposite to how she had learned in an online seminar held by a beekeeper association. The colonies kept suddenly flying away, or predators invaded the hives, despite her taking all the recommended preventive measures. She was disappointed, and felt her beekeeping attempts were a miserable failure. I told her about a phrase I had once heard on YouTube in a presentation given by the late Vera Birkenbihl, the German writer and management trainer. “Absolute perfection will be obtained on my 525th birthday.” Until that time, mistakes are part of the process.” I said to my friend: “How would it be if you could only be the perfect beekeeper of your 10,000th colony?”
In the end, it’s a question of perspective. Both views are true: Something went wrong, but something also went right. What was right is often only revealed at a later stage, with a positive outcome emerging from a so-called negative, and becoming part of a valuable experience. It is fear of making a mistake which holds us back on our path to new shores, and the potential for improvement.