Planning to Fail.

Planning to fail or failure by design has so many advantages that I’ve never compiled a full compendium. That is, I keep finding more examples. Where to start?

I suspect it all started, formally, as an outgrowth of the industrial discovery that quality improvements, as a consequence of the expertise gained by repetition and adjustments for efficiency in the production process, would ultimately result in market saturation and the complete cessation of demand. An example of success being terminal. Counting on innovation to maintain demand is undermined by the fact that even innovation has limits. So, if a steady demand and a guaranteed income/profit stream is to be maintained, reducing both quality and durability to insure replacements will be bought becomes an attractive solution. Either that, or superficial changes to products need to be introduced and marketed aggressively to make style, rather than function a selling point.

It seems ironic that the advertising about which we complain so much is actually an outgrowth of success that turns into a detriment. Style has to be hawked to keep up demand. Moreover, it actually turns out that style appeals to people directed by superficial optics (appearances) who, perhaps not co-incidentally, are attracted by the notion of being “better” than the Joneses, without actually doing anything of significant. Popularity based on appearance rather than any achievement.

So far, I’ve identified at least seven advantages derived from planning to fail or failure by design.


Failure, because it acts as a prompt to renewed effort, to try and try again, is on-going, compared to the terminal nature of success, which, for that very reason, tends to be deflating. Success is uncertain even at the moment of achievement because it raises the question, “what next?” Failure is more certain because it just calls for the same endeavor being repeated over and over. Familiarity doesn’t necessarily breed contempt, except in the snooty observer who can’t understand why someone would make the same mistakes over and over–that habit is a comfort because it requires no thought.


However ostensibly disappointing, failure that’s planned is more certain than success. We might compare it to the difference between a prat-fall and a high jump over hurdles. Not to mention that a planned prat-fall generates a sense of appreciation in an observer, while a bumped hurdle elicits a sympathetic pain. The circus clown is admired; the losing contestant is disdained. An accidental failure, unlike a planned one, is not entertaining. The human brain likes the predictable and does not like surprises–another advantage for failure. (This paragraph might actually be a three-fer). Failure is secure. The failure knows what’s what.


For someone employed in public office, the failure to accomplish the promised is the key to longevity in office. This is true whether the promised results are desired or not. Indeed, the impossible, for example the termination of all premature terminations of pregnancies, serves as a double guarantor of retaining one’s office. The proponents of the impossible hang on to hope, while the opponents of what’s promised are consoled by the thought that, given the limited amount of time, an official that’s hung up on the impossible won’t have time to get the possible (also likely to be undesirable) done. GWB failing in Iraq insured he’d leave Russia well enough alone. Not to mention that it assured him the maximum time in office.


Contrary to what we might expect, a failed leader is more likely to be popular than a success. Success often acts as a prompt to envy, a murderous emotion that’s bedeviled the human condition at least since Cain slew Abel. So, if one wants to survive to a ripe old age, it’s better to lose than to win the lottery — to cite a silly example. Success attracts competition and competitors aim to destroy, not to add their encomiums. Again, failure is the safer alternative.

On the other hand, it suggests that effusive praise needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Shakespear’s Antony had a point when he proclaimed:
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.


Failure is deceptive–if not of the individual who plans, experiences and enjoys the benefits, of his potential antagonists, the observers on the other side. The usual presumption that a person aims to achieve may well serve to lull an opponent, expecting a threat, into a false sense of complacency when failure appears on the scene instead. One is reminded of the Killdeer, a bird famous for pretending to be maimed until it up and flies out of the predators attack. Pretending to fail is obviously a very basic survival strategy. Those who fail today, survive and come back another day.

Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.

That deception is most effective when well practiced was perhaps not Scott’s intended message. That it is a standard component of someone behavioral repertoire comes as a surprise. Does not the human brain want to be right? Not necessarily. Sometimes it prefers what is known out of habit, even though it conflicts with what is on the ground.


If we describe failure as an effort that does not achieve its stated purpose, but the stated purpose is actually a lie, or perhaps the opposite of the real objective, then not achieving the stated purpose is actually success. And that seems to be the case with much legislation that’s designed to fail–i.e. not accomplish what is claimed. As noted before, the potential objects of legislative directives may well prefer them to be ineffective. Scofflaws count on laws being poorly drafted and unenforceable. But the law makers also benefit, especially if they are on a power trip, because irrational laws are an invitation to arbitrary and capricious enforcement, exempting associates and penalizing the voluntarily compliant–a prime example of which was the now-discredited McCain-Feingold effort to restrict contributions to/for candidates for public office. That both Democrats and Republicans claim distress at having had this effort to restrain citizen participation in the electoral process tells us that what Judd Gregg referred to as populism isn’t favored by any stripe of political operative. The people, they need to be restrained!


The notion that failure is the key to power strikes even me as strange. However, to the extent that failure is a strategy to deceive, to disguise the real objective, it makes sense.
What we have here is a failure to communicate.

If information is power, then withholding information (via a failure to communicate) is central to the exercise of power and, for example, Congress’ endorsement of official secrecy by some seventeen or more federal agencies is evidence of an agenda to rule, rather than serve, the people they are elected to serve–a failure of the highest order that’s obviously both intentional and planned. Why? Because the hegemony that started as a happenstance because of a severely curtailed electorate is now threatened by universal suffrage and the accessibility of information in the electronic age. No matter how many distractions are thrown in its path, it is simply not possible to control the flow of information.