I love working with engineers. They are curious and always looking for ways to make things better. They sometimes suffer a little from bringing a mechanistic problem solving mindset to complex living systems, but more often than not what they contribute to processes is a sense of adventurous experiment. This video shows why.
A few months ago at an Art of Hosting workshop in Springfield Illinois, Tenneson Woolf and I had a great conversation about failure. We were curious about how the mechanistic view of failure has worked its way into human consciousness in this culture. There are very few places in the world where people are free to try unbridled experiments, especially in organizational life. There is always a scarcity of time, talent, money and materials that forces a mindset of efficient execution. Failure is not an option.
And yet, failure of mechanical systems – an engine blowout in the example above – can be catastrophic for the machine but doesn’t have to be accompanied by the destruction of people. Humans fail in different ways – we most often get things wrong or end up doing things unexpectedly but as PEOPLE we don’t fail. In other words, it is not possible for YOU to fail. Your body might give out, your mind may fall apart, but YOU don’t fail. Living systems, even in death, continue to cycle.
This is the difference between me and a machine. The argument can be made that it all comes down to lines and circles. Machines exist on lines. They are built and then they enter the stream of time, becoming subject to entropy immediately. Mechanics try to keep them together so that the machine survives the longest possible time with the greatest effeiciency. But all machines come to an end eventually and fall apart.
Not so humans and forests and oceans. These exist in endless cycles of complete interrelationship. Even when the earth itself is consumed by the sun in another 5 billion years or so, all of the heavy atoms that have flowed through this planet will be repurposed and reused in the next incarnation of the solar system.
The failures of living systems then are simply the mechanism that drives evolution, the next order of learning, living, structure and life. As time winds down, another arrow winds up – the evolutionary spiral of learning and adaptation.
There is a great image in the above video of an engineer standing next to a bucket full of a million shards of an engine staring down into total destruction and a complete end to a prototype and at the same time moving forward one more step in the cycle of learning and evolution. That is what reframing failure is all about, being careful to learn from your mistakes and not to see the pieces in the bucket as any kind of useful analogue for a life of curious engagement.