I started my career as an academic. My research objective: to come up with a fluid dynamic formula to predict the complex interaction of waves and currents in turbulent flows.
After two years, I had a Eureka moment, and our predictive differential equation was born. Next we had to prove our theory empirically, so we took the best laser equipment money could buy and started to measure tiny movements in massive water channels in a controlled lab.
We were so sure about our theory, yet in practice we were proved so wrong. While the basics of our prediction came to pass, it took a further painstaking three years, measuring every deviation and correcting the model line by line, to fix the formula. Finally, we hit on a groundbreaking formula that did what many believed could not be done. We got there not because we were brilliant, but because we were relentless.
Harford’s thesis that success so often starts with failure is important because there is no success without at least the risk of failure. Fear of failure has given us a chronic problem with risk in our public services. To avoid failure, we have created a system that rewards caution and too often persecutes our managers for bold decisions gone wrong. We have gone so far that the word risky now has negative connotations in our management culture.
Two arguments are made against risk. The first is that healthcare is a special case where lives are at stake. Irrespective of the fact that lives are at risk in many sectors such as engineering, transport and defence, what we are discussing here is management risk, which rarely affects lives at the clinical coalface. Where lives are at stake in operating theatres, on the ward and in consulting rooms, clinicians face and embrace risk in many decisions. We need greater emphasis on eradicating clinical errors, but at leadership level, we need to free professionals to take calculated risks where they do not directly impact lives.
The second argument is about stewardship of the public purse. If things go wrong, it is taxpayers’ hard-earned cash that gets wasted. Yet the truth is that every institution – private, public or charitable – harbours massive waste. A policy of playing it safe simply gives waste a hiding place, as it becomes impossible to take bold decisions to eliminate existing waste. Consider some of the well-catalogued cases of waste around PFI and Connecting for Health. In an effort to eliminate management or financial risk, we ended up with significantly more waste.
Of course, we all fear making mistakes. But it is much more perilous to be so afraid that we avoid doing anything. The nature of pioneering uncharted territories is that we don’t know what’s ahead. We will often be forced to make decisions without the benefit of hindsight. Where we don’t have the full facts, it is only natural that we will sometimes make wrong judgements. What matters is how we recover. As Ross Perot used to say: “If you see a snake, just kill it. Don’t appoint a committee on snakes.”
The stories of people who have made and embraced mistakes make fascinating reads. Because as Harford shows, this ability to learn lessons and be relentless in the face of failure is a well-trodden path to success. We now need a concerted national effort to encourage those who embrace risk. People penalised for taking risks should also remember they’re in good company. Many before them have been persecuted and proved right in the end. Gandhi famously described his chequered path to greatness like this: “First, they ignored us. Then they laughed at us. Then they fought us. Then we won.”