Re-establishing a new relationship with the dreaded word: Failure

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You’ve probably heard a million times, “fail fast”, “fail forward”, “fail in order to learn”, right?  

The interesting thing is that although this is a really popular notion, whenever I’ve worked with teams, this is still a very difficult concept for people to embrace – especially so if they’re working in an environment where “experimentation” has never really been allowed, even in the simplest of formats.  In those environments (and they are the in the majority) it’s difficult to find moments where it feels really safe to try something without worrying about repercussions and judgement.

The trepidation and often outright fear that exists for leaders and teams, when it comes to failing, is also very real.  If you’re in that camp, I have a few things I want to share with you.

Not all failure is created equal.

That seems like an obvious statement, but in the real world, it’s rare that I see team members making the conscious differentiation between big vs small failures. For the sake of simplicity, let’s define BIG failures as major moments when things that don’t go right, and SMALL failures as harmless things that don’t go right.

“Big” things that don’t go right

Big things that don’t go right do feel more akin to the way most of us have defined failure throughout our lives. In these situations, there’s an extreme sense of urgency around fixing something, and there is a sense of significant “loss” in some way that can come in the form of reputational risk, financial risk, operational risk, compliance ris, and so on.  As with all failure, “big” ones still offer learning opportunities, but it’s feels lagging and heavy – it can feel “too little, too late” – and the regret that comes along with this can feel momentarily crippling.

“Small” things that don’t go right

Now one thing I’ve noticed, after working with a lot of different companies and seeing some pretty big failures, is that some of those failures could have been avoided or intercepted had team members done a little bit of testing in advance.  If they had tested the idea, or had run it by a few other stakeholders, or made prototypes and asked for some opinions, it would have seen early results which would have caused them to pivot; and this would have either completely eliminated the “big” failure, or it would have dramatically reduced the impact.  So, the learning that would have come from testing in advance would have safely revealed gaps that could have been corrected.

We call the results of “testing” and “experimentation” that reveal outcomes different from the original hypothesis, to be “small” things that don’t go right. Think of them as up-front validation steps of some sort, used to validate (or invalidate) the direction, and provide learning upfront and early.

These small failures don’t require massive urgent changes.  As mentioned above, they require small pivots and tweaks along the way.   And because experimentation is happening so early in the process, the results bear virtually no reputational, business, or other risk.

Small failures also come with a sense of benefit instead of regret – you’re able to benefit from what you’re learning in the moment.  Interestingly, there’s also a sense of strengthened reputation and pride that comes along with being able to show others what you’ve learned, and confidence in moving in a certain direction.

Learning at this point also feels more leading and forward-looking – and that feels empowering.

So why is there still nervousness to “try stuff” (experiment and test) early on, to see the results before going big?

The answer could lie in the fact that even though we have the ability to intellectually separate big vs small failures, seeing results that you were not expecting can still feel uncomfortable for a lot of people. Feeling “wrong” needs to be re-defined as “learning” or having an “a-ha” moment, vs. allowing our egos to feel bruised. And this could ultimately come from a combination of the way a lot of us were raised (to think that perfectionism is the mark to strive for) and the way programs are set up for children (where there always only seems to be one right answer – either you’re right or you’re wrong) and the shame that sets in.

Another answer could be that humans experience post traumatic stress from having witnessed others failing in a big way. Even second-hand exposure to failure creates a reluctance to experiment when you see the effects that bigger failures have had on others.

So as a leader, what can you do about it?

As a start:

  • Create an environment where your teams feel comfortable learning by trying and doing.
  • Applaud efforts that demonstrate explorative interests.
  • Lead by example: be mindful of your own knee-jerk reactions to judge outcomes.
  • Use language like “experiment”, “test”, and “validate” regularly around your team.
  • Ask questions like “what did you (or) we learn?”
  • Emphasise the criticality of learning early and often in the process.
  • Demonstrate trust by giving them the freedom to get out from behind their computers to engage with others (even customers) for feedback on problem statements and ideas.

Ultimately, help your team to redefine failure as learning early in order to proceed down a path that will deliver tremendous value in the end.

Thank you for spending the time to read this post! Now, GO SHOW THEM WHAT YOU’RE MADE OF! If you are a new or emerging leader, check out how The Masterclass can help you supercharge your career and positively impact your organization and those around you.

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