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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.

About

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. Patrick has...

19 comments
orbrover
orbrover

My friend wrote an enlightening book on this topics. It's called Failure: The Secret to Success and it's by Robby Slaughter. I highly recommend taking a look. Here's his blog: www.failurethebook.com Best wishes, Tod Jeffcoat

lmb
lmb

I have been sharing with my teams for years that they have permission to fail. I used to tell my brother that when he never fell while water skiing, that he never learned anything new (or not quickly at least). I didn't fall while snow skiing (hurt more), so guess who is the better water skier and who's the better downhill skier?! The analogy seems to permeate multiple environments, although it's not always well understood or embraced by upper management. So often there isn't time to do things right the first time, but there's always enough time to do them over. This is not the mindset we're seeking. Success is assumed, but the path isn't always obvious and it's better to try than to do nothing. Of course doing nothing guarantees no failures... or does it? Even baseball accepts failure. No one bats 1000 ! ...or even close. Don't set yourself up for failure by trying to bat 1000... but if you can learn and grow from it, embrace it.

gak
gak

I agree. The idea of "resolve to fail" is questioned most in the comments. If reformulated as "try so hard that will fail once per quarter", it may be easier to get. I have actually seen a company demise caused by the idea that if something failed it should not be tried again. This is not exactly a zero failure culture, but close. Two observations come to mind. How to boil a frog alive slowly heating the water and how fish stay in one half of an aquarium after the glass separating the other half is removed.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

What I'm reading in the comments so far seems to be missing the key point of the article. It isn't failure that matters. Failure is just the inevitable outcome. It's the taking of risk that brings reward and that matters. It is in the gamble that innovation and reward occurs. And if you gamble then you will lose occasionally -- and also win occasionally. Despite the common useage, the opposite of risk is not a success or winning. It's certainty. And the only certainty I'm aware of is death -- a rather negative result I'm sure you'll agree. (Risk is a synonym to probability of occurrence not to exposure). Unfortunately, so many organizations are unwilling to accept the downside that they stifle risk. And without risk, there can be no wins and no innovation. So when you celebrate failure you are really celebrating the acceptance of risk and the willingness to deal with it realistically.

shreddel
shreddel

I agree that accepting the failures and learning from them can help us as we move forward. Keeping those lessons in mind and not repeating them provides the growth we all need to succeed.

derek.lauber
derek.lauber

Excellent post and great comments. Organizations that do not allow failure, do not support learning .Failure is a wonderful teacher, but only if you learn and try again. Taking your bruises along with the valuable information gained from your failure to make another attempt is the key. If you fail and stop trying then you may lose the real lesson.

sysop-dr
sysop-dr

Reading the comments and taking inspiration from the quote I would like to add my two cents. Edison made a light bulb but he made a lot of failed prototypes before he got it right. I expect he found fairly quickly that you can't make one with an aluminum wire. That prototype failed. if he had stopped at his first failure what would have happened then? I fail all the time, multiple times a day. it's called experience and unless it involves a fire extinguisher it's an OK failure. Learn for every one of your little failures and you will avoid big ones. But expect to have big ones and learn from them too.

eoschlotz
eoschlotz

Failure should not be big "all or nothing" events. A healthy culture should tolerate failed steps along the way to a successful project. A few of the early approaches or technologies should be high risk, but the learning and self-correcting of the organization should tolerate some failures and direction changes as healthy to improve the final product. One of the good aspects of a marketplace is the competition of ideas that should lead to survival of the fittest products. Of course, if an organization does not have the stomach for risk or corrections, it should hang back and let others take the lead. Whether or not they can catch up is another issue. Speaking of "failure", I'm surprised no one pointed out that a marathon is traditionally 26 miles and 385 yards, not the 37 miles you refer to :-).

BrianMWatson
BrianMWatson

I agree with my everything written. What I don't agree with is "resolving to fail." We should always *try* to succeed. If we happen to fail, it should definitely be a learning experience and not punished. I also don't agree that failure is necessary to learn. We can learn from our successes as well - many of which are attempts to accomplish something (i.e. not a known good solution). In these cases, when success is achieved, we learned what worked (and what may work even better - but that's a different story). I think the real point - and a very valid one - is to not be *AFRAID* to fail (which is to be afraid to try). And certainly don't punish failure.

Jemonaco
Jemonaco

I am not sure "celebration" is the desired diction. Celebrating behavior can lead to a reinforcement of bad tactics and strategy. It can also allow denial of reality to creep into the organizational culture. We have satellites, computers, cell phones, automobiles, and think because of the nifty technology, the nature ofman has changed. I contend that the nature of man has not changed much over at least 5000 years. So I look to the ancients for guidance in such topics as how to treat success and failure. No Republican Roman general who was defeated in battle was celebrated or promoted. Neither were the legionnaires who survived the defeat. But neither was the failing commander punished. The legionnaires who survived were expected to learn an object lesson through their fallen comrades. Sometimes patience can be confused with inaction. This is not always so. During the 2nd Punic War, when Hannibal crossed the Italian peninsula with impunity after decisively defeating two Roman armies (at Lake Trasimene and Cannae), the Senate and people of Rome clamored for decisive action and a military victory. Quintus Fabius Maximus was appointed dictator and it fell to him to lead the armies against Hannibal. Despite strong urgings to attack, Fabius elected to proceed with "active defense" (read that as retreats). He held the remaining army intact. Because of his patience, the Roman army was not further destroyed and it laid the foundations to rebuild over time. Eventually, the Carthaginians were annihilated. It was not so much inaction (though Fabius was accused of this) as reevaluating, rebuilding, and reorganizing -- it worked.

blarman
blarman

I have to disagree with the author's implication here that failure is always a positive thing. Failure for failure's sake is ridiculous. Failure is and should be only acceptable if we learn something from it. To go out of our way to fail just to say we failed is counter-productive.

Techtoo
Techtoo

Just like learning how to ride a bike. No one can avoid falliing from the bike before mastering the skill. However, just don't make failing become a habbit.

mkilpatric
mkilpatric

For years, I have maintained a similar discipline to this. Without failures, we as humans do not actually learn anything. In many industries, they follow the mantra "Failure is Not An Option", because they heard it once. I myself expect my team to fail, not at major tasks, but in daily routines, in certain troubleshooting scenario's, in the method of learning to perform better; in a different way. I let my team know that I expect them to perform to the best of their ability, that I expect all of us, myself included, to learn new ways to perform tasks; and I understand that the learning process requires failure. I also know there are those in the world that work in an industry where failure is not an option per se, but that someone failed before them to learn the right way not for themselves, but for the next person to learn. This is also a way that failure leads to success. MK

Jemonaco
Jemonaco

This is an excellent observation. I guess it is difficult to assess probabilities in "new" problem domains, where little information exists. I think there is a problem in most B-schools in that they seem to be teaching "risk avoidance" rather than "risk management". I think risk avoidance (also read as "risk elimination") is a contributing factor to our (currently) sick American economy. Of course, another contributing factor to embrace of risk elimination was the "irrational exuberance" of the 1990's and dotcom era when it was "impossible to fail". I still shake my head at the investment advisers who heralded the period as technology having changed the rules of economics.

Jemonaco
Jemonaco

Failed attempts to accomplish should never be punished (unless, of course, the attempted accomplishment is a criminal activity). Edison's (team's) persistence when trying to invent an incandescent light bulb is legendary [many people don't realize Edison understood very little about electricity, chemistry, science, and math -- but he hired talent that did]. It's also interesting how hard it was for Edison to get over the unsuitability of DC for electricity transmission over distances longer than a few hundred feet. It may be that the brute force approach reinforced Edison's inflexibility when seeking alternative problem solutions. I get the impression Edison unnecessarily wasted resources in many of his endeavors. I also find it interesting that Tesla didn't give up easily either (and failed plenty of times). It is possibly because he was punished for failures that he solved the seemingly impossible problem of long distance transmission by inventing AC (not Air Conditioning), the long wave radio, and he even invented a technically superior light bulb to Edison's. I do think when reliance on marketing subverts technical superiority, let the markets beware. (That's probably a separate discussion)

sissy sue
sissy sue

Yes, you can learn from your successes. However, I have found that failure is a much better teacher. You say: "if he (Edison) had stopped at his first failure what would have happened then?" This is so true. There are far too many people who let one little failure whip them. They fall, and then they refuse to get up and try again. This is cowardice, and a sure-fire way to get nowhere in life. It is better to try and fail than to fail to try.

Jackmouve
Jackmouve

That's a great history lesson. But I wouldn't consider an "Active Retreat" as inaction. Inaction would be to do nothing. Also, I believe that the article is really just saying to not build a culture that punishes failure. It's not saying throw a party. It's just saying to view failure as an acheivment of action. As the sayings go... "Knowing what NOT to do is as important as knowing what TO do." and "There is no such thing as failure if you learned something." And there is nothing wrong with celebrating a strong fight, even if victory eludes you.

Jemonaco
Jemonaco

Jack -- very good points. Especially the last point -- I suppose if it were a life or death fight, the celebration would be moot, anyway! :-)