The power of failing

If you lead a team, business unit, or company, giving yourself and your team permission to fail may result in a breakthrough innovation that changes the direction of your organization.

At the inflection point that usually arrives with a new year, I would recommend encouraging a situation most knowledge workers and their leaders fear like the plague: failure. I recently heard a saying that sums up a driving principle for the New Year nicely: "Reward success, celebrate failure, and punish inaction." Let's consider this in more detail.

A failure-free climate is an innovation-free zone

You've likely heard all the bromides about the difficulties of achieving innovation, one of my favorites being Thomas Edison's quip that "We now know a thousand ways not to build a light bulb." We instinctively know that failure is a necessary ingredient for success and innovation, whether it's inventing the light bulb or learning how to ride a bike, yet many corporate cultures spend their time punishing failure so ruthlessly that risk taking and innovation are quickly strangled as well. Culturally, the smallest error by a minor celebrity or previously unknown business is cannon fodder for traditional and social media the moment the error is made, reinforcing the notion that failure is something to be avoided at all costs.

Cultivating a team or business where failure is not only tolerated, but actively celebrated as a step in the road to success, doesn't happen by accident. Consider your last failed initiative. Did those involved run for the hills, and a formerly high-flying effort become "the incident of which we shall not speak"? While no one expects pay raises, high fives, and a "failure party," when leadership considers failure a critical element of success failed initiatives are regarded as learning experiences, and useful elements are harvested so that the next effort already has a few arrows in its quiver before even starting.

The curse of inaction

The worst corporate cultures, and not coincidently those that punish failure the most severely, are plagued by inaction. You may have worked in a company where you were told to "not stick your neck out" or encouraged to "go along to get along." The most successful managers in this type of organization rigorously maintained and defended the status quo. Except for a forced monopoly, various government entities being the only examples that exist, maintaining the status quo takes you out of the race while competitors pass you by. Imagine the marathon runner who establishes a strong lead in the first dozen miles of the race, and then simply stops running, worried about all the risks and potential for disaster lying in those last 25 miles. It's laughably obvious that this runner will be passed by the entire field and not even finish the race, yet countless teams and companies do exactly this when they decide inaction is the best course.

Paradoxically, inaction is a course of action in itself. By deciding to avoid innovation, risk, and decision making, you have made a conscious choice that will later limit your options. Like the runner above, once you've been passed by the strongest competitors your chances to recover become increasingly limited with each passing second.

Resolve to fail at least once per quarter

The media is awash in suggestions for New Year's resolutions and admonishments on everything from losing weight to becoming an Internet billionaire. While I hate to add to the noise, I would suggest you consciously try to fail once per quarter in the coming year. It may sound silly, but giving yourself permission to fail in a work or personal setting once every few months can be extremely powerful. With permission to fail, you might attempt to solve that complex technical problem and, even if unsuccessful, learn something that can be applied to 50 similar problems. Perhaps you'll take that dream vacation, despite the worries about getting the time off, getting the right dinner reservation, or going at the wrong time of year.

If you lead a team, business unit, or company, giving yourself and your team permission to fail may result in a breakthrough innovation that changes the direction of your organization. While there's a higher likelihood you'll learn one more of the thousand ways not to succeed, you'll still be running the race and growing stronger and faster, rather than stopping in the middle and watching your competitors pass you by.


Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

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