Organizations whose cultures forbid failure are organizations that will become stagnant, lacking the resourcefulness and innovation necessary to succeed.
When failure isn’t an option, there’s no incentive to take even the smallest risk in trying something new. If an employee knows he’ll be punished for failing, he’ll be careful to stay well within the boundaries of accepted practice. And then it’s not just failure that isn’t an option; it’s any kind of change or improvement.
Obviously you don’t want to encourage wildly impractical risk-taking or invite catastrophic failure. So how can you encourage employees to take sensible risks, learn from their mistakes, and – as the saying goes – “fail forward” into success?
Lay the groundwork
A culture of innovation, creativity, and continuous improvement requires acceptance of failure. And as we all know, employees take their cues from how their leaders act, rather than from what they say.
Is the executive team transparent about what’s not working as well as about the organization’s successful endeavors? Or do they try to cover up problems, shifting blame to other people or situations?
Blaming external situations (the struggling economy) or other people or departments (“I can’t serve customers if our IT systems don’t support what they need!”) doesn’t just shift responsibility for the problem. It also shifts the capacity to respond. After all, if the problem doesn’t belong to me, the solution isn’t my responsibility.
We can wait for the economy to recover or stare at the IT manager until she overhauls the technology.
Or we can step up and acknowledge that there’s an overall challenge that needs to be met – and start suggesting ways to do so.
Failure is part of the process
Companies that have won recognition for allowing employees to fail include 3M, Genentech, and Google.
These companies have had policies encouraging employees to take a percentage of their work-week to focus on independent projects.
Clearly there will be many failures in this process. Yet there have also been some stellar successes. Examples? 3M’s PostIt notes started as an independent project, as did Google’s GMail and Genentech’s anti-cancer drug Avastin.
While your organization may not be in a position to extend this type of opportunity to employees, you can promote a culture where failure is an accepted part of the process.
And then you’ll discover that giving employees permission to fail is one of the greatest ways to encourage innovative problem-solving and open the doors to continuous improvement – so you can successfully meet your annual goals.
Recommended Training Resource: Leaders of Character: Leadership — the West Point Way explores the civilian and military careers of West Point graduates to illustrate the six qualities of true leaders (including the ability to learn from failure). Thought-provoking and inspirational, this video will help your leaders (and the employees who follow them) understand what it means to be a true leader – including the good news that leadership isn’t about being infallible.
Additional reading: Forbes.com published an article last October on this very topic: “If you have to fail – and you do – fail forward.” You can read it here: http://www.forbes.com/sites/mikemaddock/2012/10/10/if-you-have-to-fail-and-you-do-fail-forward/
John Maxwell’s acclaimed book Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes Into Stepping Stones for Success uses specific biographical examples from many successful people to describe how different people respond to failure and ultimately become successful. You can find it on Amazon at: http://www.amazon.com/Failing-Forward-Turning-Mistakes-Stepping/dp/0785288570/