Nobody wants to fail. But in highly complex organizations, success can happen only when we confront our mistakes, learn from our own version of a black box, and create a climate where it's safe to fail. We all have to endure failure from time to time, whether it's underperforming at a job interview, flunking an exam, or losing a pickup basketball game. But for people working in safety-critical industries, getting it wrong can have deadly consequences. Consider the shocking fact that preventable medical error is the third-biggest killer in the United States, causing more than 400,000 deaths every year. More people die from mistakes made by doctors and hospitals than from traffic accidents. And most of those mistakes are never made public, because of malpractice settlements with nondisclosure clauses.For a dramatically different approach to failure, look at aviation. Every passenger aircraft in the world is equipped with an almost indestructible black box….
The difference between aviation and health care is sometimes couched in the language of incentives. When pilots make mistakes, it results in their own deaths. When a doctor makes a mistake, it results in the death of someone else. That is why pilots are better motivated than doctors to reduce mistakes.
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This basic perspective—that failure is profoundly negative, something to be ashamed of in ourselves and judgmental about in others—has deep cultural and psychological roots. According to Sidney Dekker, a psychologist and systems expert at Griffith University, Australia, the tendency to stigmatize errors is at least two and a half thousand years old.17