I freely admit that one of the most challenging times as manager was when I felt that my way of doing something would produce better outcomes than the path my subordinates wanted to pursue. On one hand, I wanted to empower people to take responsibility (I know I read that somewhere), but, on the other hand I was on the hook for meeting financial performance goals and allowing them to proceed and “get it wrong” might have resulted in putting me in hot water. What to do? I wish I could say I always had the foresight to stand back and give my staff the leeway they needed and use these situations as coaching opportunities. I didn’t. When the stakes were high, it felt almost impossible. However, I came to learn over time that inserting myself too often or too strongly was crippling their ability to grow and learn. I got better at managing this with experience – but it was a difficult struggle.
Many executives I encounter will say openly that they wish their organizations were more innovative. While they say that with honesty (I hope), I wonder if they think deeply about it. After all, innovation involves risk. Trying something new that may not work could cost you time and money in the short run. So how much innovation can you afford?
We mostly would agree that we learn from failure. It is a natural (and effective) process for us. I would say that we actually learn BETTER from our mistakes than from our successes. The truth is that the art of managing involves balancing these dichotomies.
Determining where on the spectrum you want to land is an important consideration. All I know for sure is that breakthrough innovation is unlikely to occur in an environment with no tolerance for reasonable failures.
On this point, here are what some contemporary thinkers have to say:
“All of us fail. Successful people fail often, and, worth noting, learn more from that failure than everyone else.” —Seth Godin in How to Fail
“I contend, and I love this irony, that it is their mindset about failure and its purpose, their ability to put failure into that proper perspective, to use failure for a purpose and their ability to harness failure to fuel persistence, that makes them winners. Winners, in other words, don’t view failure as an end point, but as a learning point.” –Lee Burns, Learning from Losing and the Gift of Failing
So this begins to paint a picture about how, while failure is not something to which we want to aspire per se, we must have the WILLINGNESS to fail before we can step out and try new and different things. (This probably explains why children generally perform better than adults on many tests of creativity, divergent thinking, and innovation abilities – something about which I have written many times in past articles. Kids are initially fearless in trying new and different things, but as they age they become more influenced by the need to be socially accepted and teachers reinforce the importance of conformity. (See, for example this Sir Ken Robinson talk on How Schools Kill Creativity.)
So how do you create a “failure friendly environment” in your organization?
In general, the more short term metrics driven your organization is, the more risk averse it will be (and the less innovative). So if you think your organization is too much this way, here are some ideas.
Consider the story by Margaret Heffernan where she describes how she ran into the head of a fantastic school that, every year, runs a Failure Week. The point of the exercise is to encourage the students to dare to fail. Every afternoon, students stand up and discuss – proudly – what they tried, how it failed and what they learned from the experience. The bigger the failure, the bigger the learning and the greater the kudos. The point of the exercise is to accustom the students to the idea that failure = learning.
What do you think?
In his book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, Tim Harford argues that success comes when people manage to get things right at an individual level, after they learn by first hand personal experience what was not working. He details that in the case of the Iraq war, we experienced initial success in defeating Hussein’s Republican Guard, but did a poor job of anticipating the chaotic consequences of the resulting power vacuum and terrorist insurgency. For some time, Pentagon planners did not know how to achieve success, but officers on the ground who lived the problems every day began to see a way clear to revise tactics and strategies, building infrastructures, forming alliances, and equipping the Iraqi’s themselves to stand up against terrorists. This would not have been possible without the preceding turmoil and early losses.
Or, think about the Apollo 13 near disaster after an electrical short caused a massive explosion. That act brought our arguable some of the best of what NASA represented, as countless physicists engineers and scientists banded together to solve multiple crucial problems and they brought the three stranded astronauts home safely.
So we as humans are pretty good at learning from and adapting to failures. It is a part of our life experience, and so too should it be a part of your organizations. If all we do is celebrate our successes, we send a strong message that “no failures are tolerated here.” That is a dangerous message to send.
Every organization needs some entrepreneurial spirit. Taking risk is a necessary part of new idea and new business creation. Risk takers won’t likely stay within your company if you shackle them. They might go off instead and become your competitors.
So think hard about where to strike the right balance in your organization. Failure is something to manage, yes, but also to accept, and even to celebrate and recognize.
From This I Believe, NPR, Failure is a Good Thing, by Jon Carroll