…and be back in time for dinner” my father would tell me when I and my friend David would go for a half day trip to the lighthouse fields, now Durlston Country Park.

Off we would go, avoiding the old holes in the ground at the disused quarries where the edges were obscured by brambles and nettles. My imagination was good enough to think that falling through a dense thicket of brambles and nettles while bouncing off large chunks of Purbeck stone was an experience to be avoided, so I never fell into the quarry.

I did walk along the cliff edge, I managed to stand in front of the lighthouse foghorn bank when someone decided to test it. I didn’t just hear it, I felt it. We both managed to get bitten or stung by various insects and plants, we both thought that the other quarry workings where you could squeeze around the locked gate and down the path into the darkness wasn’t the same as falling into a quarry so we managed that as well, regularly. Once, we remembered a torch.

We had a thoroughly good time exploring, and we always manage to get back in time for dinner, as teenage boys do.

That’s all my father would tell me. He didn’t tell me not to fall over the cliff, he didn’t tell me to avoid nettles and foghorns and not to get too close to clouds of biting insects or anything else.

Advice on 2 levels

It was good advice, and it worked on two levels. On one level, I did exactly as I was told. I didn’t fall in the quarry, and I was back for dinner. On a subtler level, it gave me free rein to discover and explore. In a business context, it avoided catastrophes but not failures.

Catastrophe or failure

Catastrophes are the end of life equivalent in business terms, just like falling in the quarry could easily have been for me. Failures are learning experiences if managed well enough. It’s very trite to say that there are no failures, only learnings, because with every failure comes some cost and eventually increasing costs bring looming catastrophes.

But if the prospect of failure is managed, it does become a learning opportunity. There are blogs on Failing successfully Part 1 and Part 2, where we go into this in more depth. But essentially, it’s about sufficient rules and a way back, rather than rules for everything and no way forward.

How to fail repeatedly

Witness the witless United Airlines most recent debacle (there have been others, including girls wearing leggings denied boarding  and a first class passenger bumped in favour of one with more flyer miles), seemingly caused by a long and inflexible rule book,  with no on the ground empowerment.

Someone (the CEO perhaps) should tell them “Don’t fall in the quarry” but too late if his systems have already pushed them over the cliff. He should have made rules to allow learning and develop trust.

Now more successfully

Don’t cover everything – you won’t manage to, but as circumstances evolve, you will tend to add rules just in case it happens again. It probably won’t, but you will, every day, restrict your business and your people to respond appropriately in the way you would wish to be treated.

Before the next rule is added, ask yourself, does it fit the “Don’t fall in the quarry” test? If it doesn’t fix a catastrophe, you may well not need it.