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Rethinking failure

I took a class taught by Karl Weick during the Fall 2006 term. I can’t remember the title of the class, but I know it was MO 700. I’ll call it “MO.” MO and I were instant friends. The reading list was interesting; the course discussions were, for the most part, thoughtful. And Karl was there. Nikhil Sharma and Jude Yew, the students who recommended MO to me, were absolutely right. Karl Weick is a wonderful instructor who provides amazing amounts of constructive feedback both in discussion and about our papers.

The paper I’m thinking about now was the last one I wrote for the class. I called it something like Collaboratories through a Sensemaking Lens. Writing that paper was a tough task. At that time in the course, we were reading Managing the Unexpected, and I was struggling with the way the book used the word “failure.” In the book, “failures” are more like “unexpected events” or “events that don’t go as planned” than they are the terribly negative outcomes that come to mind when I hear the word. Sure, some failures in the book are monumental – I’m thinking nuclear reactors behaving badly. Not all failures need to be life-or-death in order to benefit from the characterization Weick and Sutcliffe give them though. Weick and Sutcliffe ask us to think of failures as opportunities to learn and adjust.

It’s pretty easy for me to recognize a nuclear reactor melting down as a failure. What’s harder is thinking about what would count as a failure in an academic research setting. I’ve been living by the mantra, “It’s all data to me!” Does that mean that I don’t have failures? When things don’t go according to plan, I see unexpected results in my data. Unexpected data, or data that runs counter to one’s hypotheses, certainly provides opportunities to learn. I may even want failures in this sense so that I can easily develop new research topics. Life wouldn’t be very interesting if all my hypotheses were correct. I bet I’d get a “great” academic job if that were true though. More on job stuff later.

So why does it matter that Weick, Sutcliffe, and I think about failure differently? Well, for starters, I’m trying to write a paper about collaboratories using the language provided by sensemaking and high reliability literature. In collaboratory world, we’re not used to talking about sense or failure or reliability. We talk about coordination, bench science, email, cyberinfrastructure. We might benefit from trying to describe what we see in social studies of collaboratories in the unfamiliar terms of sensemaking and high reliability. I’ll give it a shot and let you know how it goes.

Last summer after my field prelim exam, Michael Cohen encouraged me to get in touch with my picky inner critic.  He’s sure that my inner critic will be more demanding of me than I have been without him/her.  For example, my inner critic is likely to make me explain what I mean by “failure” rather than to assume my readers know what I mean.  I look at this Collaboratories through a Sensemaking Lens paper as an opportunity to consult my inner critic and to get his/her help in becoming a more careful and precise academic writer.


  • libbyh |

    Wow, my very first citing in the blogosphere. How exciting! “How Can Failure Liberate Us?” puts another positive spin on failure, and it’s definitely in the spirit I was trying to capture.

So, what do you think ?

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