How To Make Decisions In A World Of Uncertainty When Not Knowing Or Being Sure Of Anything Is The Only Answer We Have (TLDR: Get comfortable with failure..)

Since the pandemic started, we have all spent a greater share of our time confronting difficult questions. Most of those questions are not immediately answerable. It hasn’t even been a year since the virus was confirmed so being able to predict its long term effects on our mental health, our relationships, our behaviours , even our future, is nigh on impossible.

How do we know if a trend is caused by coronavirus, or if it would have happened anyway? 

The typical approach of many companies will be far too slow to keep up. Postponing decisions to wait for more information might make sense during more normal times, but postnormal , surrounded by imperfect and conflicting information, waiting to decide is a decision in itself.

The only way to really make decisions and to forge ahead in periods of radical uncertainty – where environments may change dynamically and independently of the problem solvers’ actions – is to make headway iteratively.

Unfortunately that is the not message we are getting from many of our leaders, nationally and internationally. Strategies are being deployed at short notice against a background of emerging evidence, with advice to the public confusing and changeable seemingly on a daily basis.

In a high stakes environment , where people will die whatever you do next, nobody wants to talk about failure. For companies large and small, to make progress in complex situations means re-evaluating our relationship with the F Word.

Notwithstanding the oft heard corporate mantra about “risk-taking organisations,” few people or organisations are comfortable being associated with a failure. It usually appears as a ‘tell us about a time’ question at job interviews , but the savvy candidate will avoid providing any example of a genuine **** up, and offer a ‘valuable lesson learned’ story instead.

As Phil Murphy recently said “We all fail regularly though don’t we, in various small ways? Is there an unhealthy obsession by organisations seeking to portray faultlessness?”

In an increasingly complex world, where experimentation is called for, not us can remain faultless. There is very little informed debate or discussion about this. Failure is a lot more common in highly uncertain environments than it is in better-understood situations, so why do we not publicly accept this?

The benefits of learning from failure is incontrovertible but we know that organisations that do it well are rare.  Part of this is due to culture and our refusal to let go of the heroic leadership model. Failure is seen as bad, and it sometimes is bad. Very bad. But it is sometimes inevitable, and sometimes even good. 

Building our capacity for intelligent failure

IBM’s Thomas Watson, Sr. said, “the fastest way to succeed is to double your failure rate.” So how can organisations safeguard their existing values and still create a safe failure environment?

The answer is: practice getting better at it.

Rather than something that eludes all but the most creative, intelligent failure is a learned skill that everyone can practice and strengthen.

Change the definition:

People see failure as a bad thing as it has been drummed into us through childhood and the corporate machinery. It has come to mean letting people down. We need to redefine failure as a part of a journey of discovery – in which you’ll learn the possibilities for you and your organisation.

To maintain a psychologically safe environment that celebrates intelligent failure, those who come forward should be rewarded, not punished.

See it as an investment:

This seems counter intuitive but there is a strong economic argument for failing more often.  As an example let’s say it takes 6 months and £250,000 to take a product or service from idea to launch. At best you’ll get two cycles in a year.

However, if you can do a complete cycle of learning in a week for £2000,  you can get 52 cycles in a year at about half the cost. Many of those cycles of learning will fail but will have less risk and negative impact than your latest big initiative. In the words of Andrew Stanton – “be wrong as fast as you can.”

Have a scientific approach:

Embracing failure does not mean having a lax approach or work environment. Failure can co-exist with high performance standards. Have a hypothesis and test it. Involve your data geeks and people who have no vested interests in seeing the idea succeed. If people start getting excited you have a discovery. If not – people will still feel it was worthwhile learning – but quickly move on to the next idea.

Capture the learning:

Failure is only bad if we are doomed to repeat it. Breaking our organisations out of cyclical failure is a huge challenge. Chris Bolton has asked if there’s a need for a Museum of Failed Products within public services. He’s undoubtedly right – the ‘corporate memory’ is often unreliable.

Don’t confuse this though with “We tried that before and it didn’t work.”  Just because things don’t work doesn’t mean you shouldn’t dust them down and give them another run out on a rainy day. Sometimes the timing just isn’t right.

Our organisations are heavily and successfully defended against failure

The high consequences of failure (and perceived consequences) lead over time to the construction of multiple layers of defence against failure. These include a variety policies and procedures, risk assessments, work rules, and team training all designed to tell us that failure is bad. These series of shields need to be balanced if you have any hope of legitimising failure.

  • Our future is best explored through a series of experiments rather than a one shot strategy.
  • These experiments should be carefully planned, so that when things go wrong we know why
  • They are by nature uncertain, so the outcome cannot be known ahead of time
  • They are modest in scale, so that a company catastrophe does not result
  • What is learned should be stored in the organisations memory and shared freely and widely

Ultimately intelligent failure is a learned skill that everyone can practice and strengthen.

If we can approach uncertain decisions as experiments and adopt the idea of intelligently failing, so much more can be learned.

A world where we can all admit we don’t have the answers but are committed to exploring them together, by trying things out rather than through politics or ideology, sounds an infinitely nicer place.


Feeling like a failure? Not interested in playing local lockdown lottery? Then make a lunch date with me and Ian Wright for our contribution to Digileaders week next Tuesday 13th October at 12pm where we explore real life failure experiences and why so many innovation initiatives don’t go to plan.

You can book your place here.

Published by

Paul Taylor

I’m a facilitator, innovator and designer. I work with organisations to identify problems and solve them in ways that combine creativity with practical implementation. I established Bromford Lab as a new way for the organisation to embrace challenge and adopt a ‘fast fail’ approach to open innovation. Nearly everything the Lab works on is openly accessible at www.bromfordlab.com. I'm a regular contributor to forums , think-tanks , and research reports and a speaker or advisor at conferences and events.

2 thoughts on “How To Make Decisions In A World Of Uncertainty When Not Knowing Or Being Sure Of Anything Is The Only Answer We Have (TLDR: Get comfortable with failure..)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s