Excellence is not the Opposite of Failure

Marcus Buckingham states this well in Go Put Your Strengths to Work:

The radical idea at the core of the strengths movement is that excellence is not the opposite of failure, and that, as such, you will learn little about excellence from studying failure.

This seems like an obvious idea until you realize that, before the strengths movement began, virtually all business and academic inquiry was built on the opposite idea: namely, that a deep understanding of failure leads to an equally deep understanding of excellence. That’s why we studied unhappy customers to learn about the happy ones, employees’ weaknesses to learn how to make them excel, sickness to learn about health, divorce to learn about marriage, and sadness to learn about joy.

What has become evident in virtually every field of human endeavor is that failure and success are not opposites, they are merely different, and so they must be studied separately. Thus, for example, if you want to learn what you should not do after an environmental disaster, Chernobyl will be instructive. But if you want to learn what you should do, Chernobyl is a waste. Only successful cleanups, such as the Rocky Flats nuclear facility in Colorado, can tell you what excellence looks like.

Study unproductive teams, and you soon discover that the teammates argue a lot. Study successful teams, and you learn that they argue just as much. To find the secrets of a great team, you have to investigate the successful ones and figure out what is going on in the space between the arguments.

Well said.

  • http://www.Armchair-Theology.net Dave

    So would a summary statement would read, “You can’t determine what a success looks like by studying a failure”?

  • Matt

    Right. You can’t determine how to succeed by looking at people or things that failed, and doing the opposite.

    Buckingham talks more about this in one of his other books, First, Break All the Rules. He talks about how poor sales people suffer from call reluctance–they don’t want to make the calls. So you might think excellent sales people don’t suffer from call reluctance. But it turns out that many of them do. The difference between them and the poor sales people is that the great ones have an _added_ talent, confrontation, that causes them to push through the reluctance.

    So if you looked at poor sales people and said “they are reluctant to make calls, so excellent sales people must not be,” you would be wrong. You wouldn’t be getting any closer to knowing what makes for an excellent sales person.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=38809342&trk=tab_pro CJ

    I work with a team of cognitive neuroscientists looking at the underlying neural mechanisms of optimal performance under stress. There are people who don’t adapt well to stress; likewise there are a certain percentage who thrive under intense pressure. What is it about those who thrive that’s different?

    One overarching goal of this research is to inform treatment and training for the rest of us mortals who tend to buckle when things become overwhelming. It really is taking the medical model, which is disease-based, and turning it on it’s head by studying really healthy people. How did they get that way, what do they do, how do they think, and how do they regulate emotion?

    But I think Chesterton was all over this issue over a hundred years ago:

    “The only way to discuss the social evil is to get at once to the social ideal. We can all see national madness; but what is national sanity? I have called this book “What is Wrong with the World?” and the upshot of the title can be easily and clearly stated. What is wrong with the world is that we do not ask what is right.”