When I was in grad school there were often discussions about being allowed to fail. Or rather, that more is learned from trying and failing than playing it safe and succeeding. Therefore, we should be allowed to experiment and fail. But failure really wasn’t an option.
I have also heard this discussed at USITT. Those conversations were usually a bit more academic. If a teacher sees a student failing – what do they do? Let them fail? Intervene? If they intervene, at what point? Late enough that the student understands the failure, but early enough for the show to succeed? How does this vary depending on the type of failure? Failure of scenery causing safety issues is very different than a set looking ugly because the students tried a unique painted treatment that didn’t work out very well – or was a bad color scheme.
But what is success and what is failure isn’t really discussed. Is a successful set one that the designer is satisfied with? What about the audience, the designer? If all of the above have different expectations what takes precedence? Can it be a failure to the set designer, but a success to the director? Can the audience be disappointed, yet internally everyone be satisfied? Technically, beyond meeting the client, designer, director (etc.) expectations, the set should be done on time and within budget. The third parameter, quality should be met, but is often most associated with meeting designer expectations. Further there are times when a project might ask for 100%, but 80% realization is still enough to make the project a success in the eyes of the users.
Secondary results of a successful project can mean future work, references, awards. Technically it can mean accomplishing it within OSHA requirements, safety codes, and with a high efficiency or effectiveness.
With failure there are three types:
Planning failure: the difference between what was planned and what was accomplished. In some cases, the project inherently fails because the initial scope is too large.
Actual failure is the difference between what was achievable and what actually was accomplished. This type of failure occurs due to poor performance.
Lastly, perceived failure is the net sum of actual failure and planning failure. If you plan a project that is too large, then a planning failure occurs. If the performance fails on top of that, and there is an actual failure, these are added together to create the perceived failure. The differences in perceived failure can be large depending on how those variables factor out, and are important. Theoretically, increasing planning skill, eliminating or minimizing planning failure can then minimize actual failure. Risk Management can help to eliminate planning failure by helping to identify potential problems in advance and by planning alternatives.
Regardless – unless the failure are captured and considered, real learning doesn’t occur and can’t be passed on. As an industry, we continually reinvent the wheel because past learning technical concepts and methodologies are irregularly kept, and not available. Examples: I know of more blood recipes than I can count – which one is best? I know of 15 ways I can build a rock or a tree or carve and coat foam. Which is best? What does the best alternative depend on? Cost? Time? Materials? Sometime I wish at USITT someone would build 30 rocks, all different and put them on the expo floor- and after 3 days we could analyze the results. Capturing the lessons that are learned, and teaching others those lessons are fundamentally important. But it also helps to realize that these lessons are often viewed from different perspectives.
*Definitions are from Project Management by Harold Kerzner