The truth is, we set ourselves up for failure Children in modern life are, rather notoriously, never allowed to experience anything remotely like failure (heaven forbid they miss out on a ‘pass the parcel’ prize). As a result, failure hits them hard when real life refuses to grade them on a curve suspended over a padded floor with a loving acceptance of ‘their own special spelling’. Of course it’s easy to pick on children and no-one will thank us for it, so let’s turn our attention to the adult world. The same can be said of most corporate and government processes, business systems and selfmanagement programs. The more you set strategy or design systems without a consciousness of even the possibility of failure, the greater the chance of realising that failure actually is. Diets — or ‘wellness programs’ as they have come to be euphemised — are famous for simultaneously promising the virtually impossible in record time, and for almost universally failing to provide lasting results. And yet, the more preposterous the claim and the more inflated the possibility, the more these books, powders, audio-programs and reality television shows seem to sell. What’s more concerning is that when we do eventually fail or backslide (the faith-based terminology is not coincidental), we end up blaming ourselves rather than the system we’ve bought into. We desperately selfflagellate as our internal dialogue runs to phrases such as, ‘I’m weak … I’m hopeless … I can’t do it …’ and so the cycle continues. By ignoring the possibility of failure in our thinking, we unwittingly increase the chances of it ultimately eventuating. Contrast this strategy with the design parameters of commercial aircraft. In 2012, while speaking at an international business summit in Bangkok, Thailand, we struck up a conversation with another speaker, Richard de Crespigny. Richard is the Qantas pilot who successfully landed QF32, the Airbus A380 that, en route from Singapore to Sydney, experienced catastrophic engine failure causing an enormous hole in the wing (which, it is pretty well agreed by all flying experts, is rather a bad thing to happen!). In a typically Australian, self-deprecating way, Richard is quick to deflect credit for the safe arrival away from his skills as a pilot and onto his crew and his aircraft. But when you probe a little deeper into his story, you really do get a sense of just how ‘foolproof’ the systems built into the A380 actually are. It turns out that all commercial aircraft are designed with the possibility that they may crash taken into consideration. And this stretches to considerably more than the life vest and its amazing light and whistle combination (which no doubt is immensely reassuring as you bob up and down in the middle of a vast ocean). Failure, it turns out, is actually factored into the engineering. In other words, when a system suffers a serious failure, the plane will, in most cases, stay in the air. It is only in the very unlikely event of multiple system failures of significant magnitude that you may really want to locate the nearest exit (if only to be sure of where holes in the plane are supposed to be). But even this understates the over-engineering involved in the building of the A380 (given the successful landing of QF32, the term ‘over-engineering’ may be an overstatement in itself). According to de Crespigny’s account, the aircraft exceeded even his expectations and what most pilots would consider its baseline specifications. The plane simply refused to let a ridiculously long string of errors lead to complete failure. So it appears that, when it comes to things where our lives are at stake (such as sitting in a metal chair at 9000 metres while travelling at 800 kilometres per hour) we start to get a little more realistic about our chances of success and in fact we improve those chances by preparing for the chance of failure. So how is it that we set ourselves up for failure?