Monday, June 20, 2016

The three stages of correcting failure

James Clear recently wrote a blog post on what he calls the three stages of failure, which I found quite insightful. I'd like to respond here, so I'll briefly review his definitions and advice, and at the end I'll give some examples of failure diagnosis from a board game called 7 Wonders.

The three stages of failure:

  1. Failure of tactics. These are failures of plans falling through, and the advice for combating them is a process of measurement and review so that you can make better plans in the future.
  2. Failure of strategy. This is when you carry out your plans but they don't give the results you want. Here, the advice revolves around the idea that you may have to try several strategies before one works, so implement them one after another as quickly and cheaply as you can.
  3. Failure of vision. This kind of failure is when your plans succeed, but the success doesn't match your goal. The advice here is to reflect on what you truly want from life, and then stick to your guns when other people criticize you for working toward it.
What I'd like to add to the article is a discussion of identifying to what stage a particular failure belongs. The article includes an example where a failure of tactics could have been mistaken for a failure of vision—if work isn't going well, how can you tell whether you need a new plan or a new career? The line between tactics and strategy is also notoriously fuzzy: the New Oxford American Dictionary defines them respectively as
tactic: an action or strategy carefully planned to achieve a specific end.
strategy: a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.
To me, the main difference is that tactics comprise specific decisions while strategies are broader decision-making rules. A failure of tactics, then, is when you don't achieve the specific sequence of actions you plan out, while a failure of strategy is one where your rule for making plans isn't resulting in the outcome you want.

So here's my suggested framework for identifying and correcting failures of all three types:

  1. If you're not following through on your own plans, it's a failure of tactics. Change your methods.
  2. If you're completing your plans but they're not giving the results you want, it's a failure of strategy. Change your plans.
  3. If your plans are succeeding but the results aren't aligning with your values, then it's a failure of vision. Change your goal.

Note: these must be checked in this order. You can't know whether your plans are succeeding until you can carry them out fully, and you can't know for sure whether your vision is the right one until you get close enough to see it clearly. I think this may be why Clear calls them the "stages" of failure and not just three "types."

The need to correct failures in order also explains a comment I hear regularly from self-help gurus like Ramit Sethi, who complains that people only want finance tips and tricks when he's trying to get them thinking about what it means to live a rich life. But if people are finding that they aren't following through on their plans now, it makes sense for them to want to fix that before trying to make a career change. I suspect that follow-through is such a transferable skill that it's regarded as a character trait, and that once you have it, it's easy to regard it as a neutral background on which the "real" struggles of strategy and vision play out. This reminds me of Scott H. Young's thoughts on the role of free will in success:
[That free will counts for more, the less unlikely success is,] may help explain why so many obviously advantaged people primarily credit effort for their successes. From their perspective, it was effort that mattered. Since they actually had reasonable chances to succeed, strength of conviction of the choice made to pursue it became a dominant variable, even if for most people it isn’t.
If you're at the level where fixing failures of tactics is second nature to you, then whether or not you can fix failures of strategy or vision is what matters. But if you're not at the level where you can follow through on your basic plans, then no amount of visionary introspection will help.

I'd like to end with some examples of failure diagnosis from a board game called 7 Wonders. Here's how 7 Wonders works if you don't know it: Every round, each player chooses a card from their hand to add to their civilization, then passes the remaining cards to their neighbor. Early in the game, these cards are mostly materials like wood, stone, or cloth, and later many of the cards require you to have access to several of these materials in order to "build" them. (If you don't have the resources you need, you can also use the ones your neighbors have—for a small fee.) These more expensive cards give you points, and the winner at the end of the game is the one with the most points.

Failure A: Perhaps you know that the green "science" cards are worth a lot of points if you can collect several of them, so you decide that every time you get a science card you can play, you'll do so. At the end of the game, you have accrued a respectable array of science cards, but most of your points are in this one area and it wasn't enough to win you the game. What kind of failure was this? It's a failure of strategy: you successfully followed your decision-making rule, but you didn't achieve your goal of winning. So try changing your plan. Perhaps in a small way—at the end of the game, an additional science card may not increase your points by as much as some of the other cards, so you decide that in Age III you'll relax your buy-science rule and just get whatever card is worth the most points at that moment—or perhaps you'll try another strategy entirely and focus on having access to enough resources to buy whatever cards you want at any time.

Failure B: Now let's say that your plan is to get points by completing "phases of your wonder," which have a fixed cost like other buildings you might want. The final phase is often very expensive, perhaps requiring four copies of a single resource, like stone. You go to build it, and discover to your chagrin that there isn't enough stone between you and your neighbors to accomplish it. What kind of failure was this? You didn't follow through on a plan you made, so this is a failure of tactics. So try implementing a new habit: at the beginning of the game, when collecting the resources you will need later, keep an eye on what your neighbors have, both to make sure a couple of each resource will be available to you later, and also enough of the single resource you will need if you want to complete all the phases of your wonder.

Failure C: You've tried various strategies, and are starting to win the game more frequently. But some of those strategies, like playing cards solely to keep other players from benefiting from them, bring you closer to your goal of winning but are making the game less fun. (If this doesn't sound like you, just imagine you're me.) What kind of failure is this? Your plans are succeeding, but the outcome isn't what you thought it would be. This is a failure of vision. So change your goal: perhaps play to maximize the number of points you have at the end, instead of your probability of winning. This means that you devote less effort to screwing over the other players, and lends itself more to playing against your past and future performance. Not comparing myself to others, only to my past and future selves, is a habit I try to cultivate anyway, so this way of playing fits better with my personal values.


  1. I really like the quotes above, and I think it nails privilege very nicely, and I think I might use those metrics with my class when we do problem solving next year.

    Your examples all do still boil down to personal choices, and I think you could have added a bit of that awareness into the gameplay.

    For example, what kind of failure is it if you play to get science cards and another player or players grab them before you can? Is that your failure of tactics -- failure to get to them first? Or failure of strategy -- something that can't be so easily sabotaged? Or failure of vision to play a game not relying on others?

    This was really thoughtful, Owen. We should discuss when you get home.

    1. Thanks, Katy! Sorry I didn't see your comment until now.

      You're right; it's harder to see where events outside your control fit into the system. I was thinking about this last Sunday when it was my turn to make dinner and instead I got so sick. What kind of failure was that? If that had been the end of dinner prospects for the night, I think it would have been a failure of tactics: we couldn't carry out our original plan, for whatever reason. But we had that bread you two could make into sandwiches, so everything turned out fine. This is a tactic that's part of our overall strategy to try to always have some food in the house that we can eat when something goes wrong.

      So I'd say that if you fail due to the lack of a contingency plan, it's a failure of tactics, and the corresponding advice would be to add a "What could get in the way of this?" method to your planning. Not getting a science card you were hoping for doesn't mean that collecting sciences is a bad strategy, or that you just aren't cut out to play games with other people.


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