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Nearly, as any sports fan will tell you, is never good enough. The fact that West Ham nearly won the FA Cup on Saturday may have led to record tallies of commiserations, but it’s no substitute for winning.

Followers of English cricket will remember this week’s Lords test match not for a marvellous fightback by Sri Lanka but for a series of missed opportunities. Over five days Andrew Flintoff metamorphosed from swashbuckling hero to incompetent dunderhead.

As for the World Cup, we all know what the post-mortem’s likely to contain. To lose might be courageous, exciting, or even unlucky, but it will be a failure.

If the recipe for success doesn’t work, the standard response is to tear it up and start again. Occasionally a team bucks this trend: it builds, learns lessons, sees defeat as an opportunity to identify weaknesses and improve. Still more infrequently, the fans are prepared to be patient.

The idea that nearly is not good enough permeates beyond sport. As we dole out awards for regeneration and sustainable communities, we divide ourselves into winners and losers. Of course we should celebrate success, but let’s keep our perspective: what matters isn’t the gong, but what was done to get there.

Nearly is important. Even the most successful and apparently transformative schemes are, if we’re honest, only nearly right. We’re dealing with complex and constantly shifting issues and what really matters is our performance over time and our ability to adapt. So we must constantly learn, both from successes and apparent failures.

The existence of the regional centres of excellence and the Academy for Sustainable Communities, and the Scottish Centre for Regeneration, are signs that we officially value such learning. Yet at the same time we sent out strong signals that failure is not acceptable: we must hit our floor targets, keep the regional government offices happy and, in extreme cases, explain ourselves to the Commons public accounts committee. It’s a culture of learning by enforcement.

Such a culture militates against honesty. And without honesty, we don’t learn: like sports fans, we simply applaud or condemn. We need to grow up.

Julian Dobson, editor

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