Failure is a dark and sticky subject that clings to the past and clutches at the future no matter how earnestly you try to brush it off. No wonder we typically do our best to avoid coming anywhere near it.
Over the years, however, I have discovered that, while scrutinizing my own failures only causes headaches and blurred vision, considering the general subject of failure in broader terms has a lot to recommend it. In particular, it is a useful way to help structure the environment for future success. Since the trucking industry is beginning its slow climb out of the recession and the disappointments that attended it, this may be an appropriate time to study the mechanisms of failure in preparation for the work that lies ahead.
Engineer Henry Petroski has written a good deal about the relationship between failure and success, particularly in his book, To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982). While he writes primarily about physical structures, his insights apply equally well to the world of trucks and trucking.
According to Petroski, for example, “success ultimately leads to failure,” which in turn leads back to success in a cyclical process. Inevitable pressures to economize, save time or take shortcuts, he explains, eventually compromise things to the point of failure. The failure triggers a demand for better standards and practices that paves the way back again to renewed success.
The trucking industry is also cyclical. Is it possible then that we could be unknowing participants in creating our own industry landscape of endless peaks and valleys? If Dr. Petroski is correct in his thesis about the causal relationship between failure and success, there may be something exciting to learn here.
Is it possible, for instance, to retrace our steps during the exhilarating climb up to 2000 and discover places where, in the intensity of the moment, we took shortcuts in order to sprint ahead or pressed our collective luck to push profits even higher? Did enthusiasm (dot-com and otherwise) ever elbow our caution aside? If we can find and flag any such missteps, maybe we can route the new road to recovery safely past those old dangers.
Petroski, by the way, does not seem in the least daunted by the relationship he sees between failure and success — far from it. “It is the engineer's constant challenge to conceive the new from the old,” he observes, “and it is his lot to worry about his curious kind of time travel that transcends the instruments of calculation and forces him always to think about the future to avoid the failures of the past.
“Innovation involves risk…. Yet failure in innovation should be no more opprobrious to the engineer who has prepared himself as well as he could for his attempt to build a longer bridge than to a pole vaulter who fails to make a record vault after practicing his event and using his pole to capacity,” Petroski notes. “It is the engineer who has tried to do what he is not prepared to do, or who has made the same mistake that has led to failure before, who is acting irresponsibly,” he adds. “The well-prepared engineer can and does build beyond experience without hubris as surely as the well-trained pole vaulter goes after a new record.”
So here we are, like Dr. Petroski's good engineers, preparing to build beyond our past failures and even beyond our past triumphs. Heading up the curve with the sun of success in our eyes again, it may be useful to take a look over our shoulders at that persistent shadow of failure dogging our steps. Heck, we might even suggest to that silent, clinging shade, “Why don't you lead this time? We bet you already know the way.”