Failure is the Foundation for Success

Our culture fears failure more than anything else. We talk about failure less than we talk about death, even though failures are way more common than fatalities. If we are honest with ourselves we know that there are many things we do wrong in our lives. Most of them are inconsequential, although a handful have lasting consequences.

Failure is good

At work I’ve learnt the true value of embracing failure. I tell my team that I expect them to fail. I do this not to undermine their confidence, but to build it. Sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it?

I don’t mind if you fail, as long as it is a novel and interesting failure.

That’s the core quote I give my team, they’d all recognise those exact words. My gloss is that the only way to avoid failure is not to do anything, and doing nothing is not an option. What I want my team to do is to try new things, to push the boundaries of their experience. Often things will go wrong, this is to be expected and embraced. No-one who works for me will get roasted for trying something different that doesn’t work.

A Learning Rich Environment

Allowing people to try new things, and to discover what works and what doesn’t makes for better services. It also makes for better performing teams. Only when we make mistakes can we learn what went wrong and try to improve. If we just follow the established process then we get the same old results, and people get bored.

Permission to experiment engages staff in their work. They can test their ideas out and see if they work better than the current way of doing things. If they do then that gives you better ways of working. If they don’t then the team still learns why we work the way we do. They might also develop other insights from those failures. In turn these will lead to more ideas and eventually things that work better.

Failure Drives Innovation

I’ve been studying innovation, and also reflecting on my own experiences. Most technical and social innovation that I can think of is driven by something that doesn’t work. That failure is the irritant that the pearl is built around. Here are some famous examples.

  • Dyson vacuum cleaner came out of frustration that the first dust sucked up blocked traditional vacuum cleaners
  • Dropbox came from the frustration of leaving a USB stick with work on it behind while travelling

Embrace Failures

If we don’t talk about the failures then how can we engage people, improve performance and drive innovation?

We all need to do it. The start point is to quietly do it yourself. Every time you do something spend a few minutes reflecting on how it went. Maybe use the walk back to your desk from a meeting, or a quiet tea break or a commute home. You can do it in the shower, or while you brush your teeth.

When you have your moment alone ask yourself what didn’t quite go as well as you hoped. Think about why that might have been. Form a theory that explains what you observed. Then think how to disprove your theory. Try it out.

Once you’ve go used to the idea, and shown that you can get learn from your mistakes, then introduce someone else to the concept. Start with peers, although if you are a manager get your team to do this.

Cultures can change. All it needs are enough people to make the effort to change them.

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