Praising Failure: Creating a Failure Friendly Culture
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"Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently."
- Henry Ford
Success is as appealing as failure is repulsive. As humans, we’re hard-wired to move towards wanted and away from unwanted. It’s a commonly held belief among people that success attests to intelligence, effort, dedication and general worth.
Failure triggers emotional pain, discomfort, it questions our worth and can pinch our self-esteem. Yet, as anyone who has ever achieved a goal will tell us, it’s a vital and unavoidable part of innovation, creativity and “success”, however we define it.
It’s our relationship to it, and the strategies and systems in place that need revisiting if we’re to effectively create, work and live a brave, meaningful life.
The common definition of failure we find in most dictionaries revolves around the idea of lack of success. Some include the word incompetence. And the truth is, these notions reflect the perceptions we hold, consciously or unconsciously around the notion of failure. The problem is people identify with failure, thinking in terms of: if I fail, I’m a failure. Meaning, failure, is on the opposite end of success.
Failure is a natural and unavoidable part of living and success. The only way to avoid failure is to do absolutely nothing and even so, you end up failing to live fully.
What we need is to reframe failure, not as proof as inadequacy but as proof of the willingness to try new things, to move forward and beyond comfort zones. Failure is a testimony to a brave life, it’s evidence that you’re trying new things. It’s an essential part of success.
Furthermore, failing, just like any important life skill requires practice. Yet, people tend to avoid it all together. It’s failing more often and learning from it, that allows us to get better and clearer about it. In general, the amount of discomfort we feel around failure diminishes the more we embrace it.
Anytime we overcome failure, we reach a new level of living and thinking. Once you draw the lesson from the challenge, you’re in possession of more knowledge, skills, strength, and resilience than you were before.
This is true on an individual and organizational level. Leaders need to relate to failure in healthy terms in order to create the kind of environment that supports and promotes failure.
The Great Wall of Failure
“The fastest way to succeed is to double your failure rate.”
- Thomas Watson
It’s one thing to read words off of a computer and intellectually entertain these ideas. Nothing will shift your relationship to failure like experiencing it yourself. However, it helps to study examples of people who lived on these premises.
Oprah Winfrey was fired from her first TV job and considered unfit for the role. The first time he tried comedy, Jerry Seinfeld was booed off the stage. Stephen King, was rejected by 30 publishers when he wrote his first book. Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper job for lack of imagination and good ideas. Abraham Lincoln was 23 years old when he lost his job. Around that time he lost the bid for State Legislature. At 29, he lost the bid to become Speaker in the Illinois House of Representatives. At 39 he failed to become Commissioner of the General Land Office in D.C. And ten years later he was defeated on the quest to become a U.S. Senator. Nevertheless, he persisted.
Michael Jordan, one of the greatest athletes of all time says: “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game-winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."
Creating a Failure Culture
“It's fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure. “
- Bill Gates
Failing on a personal level entails a certain risk, failing professionally might put at stake a promotion, a job or ultimately your career. So, how do organizations create a culture where failure is accepted and encouraged as an integral part of learning, innovation, creativity, and success?
Any change at this level has to start from the top down. Leaders need to have a strong growth mindset, believing that skills and intelligence can be developed and mistakes and failures are a part of the learning process.
No one is to say that mistakes deriving from inattention or lack of compliance to guidelines should be encouraged. In fact, it’s important to clearly communicate the distinction between these two types of failure. Nevertheless, a culture of tolerance and even encouragement of failure is more likely to reap the benefits of innovation.
Here are some ideas to implement a failure-friendly culture:
1. Lead by Example
In an organization, everyone looks to the leader for examples. If the leader doesn’t openly share his own encounters with failure, then the implicit message is that failure is not acceptable. Therefore, it’s up to each leader to face his own relationship to failure and communicate it in a way that promotes transparency and trust within the organization.
The President and co-founder of Pixar, Ed Catmull was interviewed for the Next Big Idea Club, in Pixar’s new Studio in Brooklyn, a 20 million dollar state of the art building. When the interviewer said: “Congratulations, this building is really cool!”, Ed replied: Actually, this building was a huge mistake, the hallways are too narrow, the atrium is too small, the cafeteria is in the wrong place. But the real mistake we made was that we didn’t realize we were making a mistake.” He does this level of openness and candor all the time, and it builds trust within the organization.
It creates what Daniel Coyle, author of the Culture Code, calls a vulnerability loop: an honest and open exchange of vulnerability between people that creates closeness and trust. It’s this type of behavior that creates a culture that promotes honest communication, support, and risk-taking.
2. Fall and Rise In Community
One of the fundamental needs we share as humans is the need to belong. We all want to know, that no matter what happens, we have a space where we’re not only accepted but welcomed as we are. Companies that understand, and successfully create a sense of community and belonging are more likely to retain their talent. A community also provides the space for communicating mistakes, failures and challenges, offering judgment-free support and feedback. It also helps, to establish specific failure communication systems, where experiments, innovative procedures, and lessons learned from risk-taking are widely shared. Establishing the guidelines within this system helps ensure that it remains a space of trust, respect, and accountability.
3. Golden Risk Award
It isn’t enough to remove punitive behaviors and language from an organization to encourage people out of their patterns of thinking and creating and into the unknown. In addition to this, intelligent risk-taking must be rewarded. Creating incentives and rewarding risk-taking is another way of building a failure-friendly culture.
4. Blur the Lines
When it comes to communication, understanding failure is as important as understanding success. If the leadership acknowledges the importance of failure that should come across in the language used and the type of questions asked. One of the ways to close the gap, between failure and success is to ask the same questions in both successful and unsuccessful efforts and, in that way, treat success and failure the same way.
- How much of the result was due to the hard work of the intervenients?
- How much of the result was due to external factors?
- How much could have been predicted or prevented with further research?
- How can this move us closer to our goals?
- How does this serve our customers?
5. Engagement Over Evaluation
There is a space and a place for each. Evaluation is a necessary and vital part of evolution. However, when it comes to this topic, management is better off talking in terms of engagement rather than evaluation, that is, asking questions that promote collaborative thinking, that show interest and support, questions like:
- What’s new with your project?
- What challenges are you facing?
- Considering the long-term goal, what might the next steps be?
These types of questions emphasize learning and the experience itself, rather than narrowing into notions of failure and success.
Wrapping It Up
Fear of failure is a deeply seated belief and a very common one. The intention is not to eliminate this fear, rather promote action in spite of the fear. It’s creating the right conditions so that the behavior emerges within a context that allows and favors it. Building these conditions is a long-term task that requires patience, willingness and resilience. But it’s not only a strategy that drives creativity and innovation, it’s a human-centered premise, that allows people to flourish and develop their own talents and strengths while being fully human. And, in this age and time, our organizations need more human-centered leadership.
“What ultimately determines our ability to succeed in any endeavor, is our ability to sustain and progress in the face of failure.”