Leaders, we know that failure is one of those life occurrences we do our best to avoid like a cold, germs, and for some, the dentist. Even the most erudite among us will do their level best to develop processes to defeat failure. Defeat and failure. The thought of either can send each of us to that place, that one incident where we said, “That’ll never happen to me again.”
The only real failure in life is the failure to try. –Unknown
Consider this. How do you respond when a person you supervise fails at ______? Do you pounce or resist the urge to condemn him with, “How could you let that happen?” Do you choose a more pitiable route, “Ah, that’s okay” (subtext: Thank goodness that happened to you and not me)? Do you find yourself engaged in a pleasant or not-so-pleasant blame game with her trading facts and figures to prove who’s right? Not all of us choose the Zen approach to failure first. However, what would the conversation with our colleague be like if with open hearts we sought to explore and discover instead of looking for who did it?
You should fail often to succeed sooner. –Tom Kelley, Author of The Art of Innovation and Co-Founder of IDEO
If we, as leaders, prohibit failure, we do harm. We then encourage stagnant status quo and curb organizational learning. Ever hear of the scientific method or Plan Do Study Act? In both of these closely related processes, failure is assumed. Failure equals learning, and it points to the next area of discovery. Of course we intellectually get the concept of discovery and testing. However, what bites us is the gnawing feeling we get if the test goes sour. So, naturally, we look for ways to avoid the feeling. And we find ways to rationalize the avoidance. Have you ever said or have someone say to you:
We can’t waste our members’ money on trying that.
We don’t have time.
Our policies clearly state that this is not allowed.
We tried that before and it didn’t work.
I just don’t know about this one. We need more data.
Oh, our clients won’t go for this. I know. They gave us a fit with the last thing we tried.
Let’s face it. We all want A’s. Our school system raised us to strive for them. Our career tracks depend on it. Our position as leaders is tracked by our success rate. And when was the last time you purposely ate at a fine restaurant with less than a B rating?
Failure does not equal stupidity, laziness, irresponsibility or recklessness. It simply means you tried something, predicted a certain outcome and got a different one. Are you disappointed? Absolutely. Feel a little egg on your face? You bet. And with the yolk dripping from your chin, you can examine the failure to see what you will try differently. Or perhaps the failed test turns out to be something much more organic, and delicious. Can you imagine the sweet taste of failure? Sure you can, especially if you like chocolate. According to legend, the molten lava cake is actually a botched dessert baked by Jean-George Vongerichten.
While we’re in the feel good sweet mode, try this one on. How do we as leaders create space to allow failure and discovery to happen? Three things are necessary: grace, forgiveness, and resilience.
Ponder that and take a look at Ode Magazine’s article In praise of failure. For more failure fodder read IndustryWeek’s leadership strategy and best practices article Avoid Failure. Succeed. What’s the Difference to get a manufacturer’s perspective.