Failing Well

Dave Dawes

Failure is a word that has a lot of negative connotations and is a word that many people are uncomfortable using. At a recent interview I asked applicants “what was their greatest failure” and many replied that they did not like the word and did not associate anything they did with failure. If conversely I had asked “when have you ever tried anything new”, none of them would reply “I have never tried anything new in my life”. And yet this is precisely what they are saying by saying they have never failed. Nothing is ever entirely successful on its first attempt so any endeavour to try or learn something new will involve a degree of failure along the way.

Failure, seen in this light, is a necessary part of the innovation process; and innovation drives both entrepreneurship and social reform. However, there is a lack of structured advice about how to handle and use failure in a practical way.  We need to reclaim the word and recognize its importance as a developmental step.

Encourage the sharing of failure

If you are trying to encourage innovation, there will inevitably be failures along the way. By encouraging people to talk about it and to share their stories of failure, the group or organization as a whole can learn much faster. If the same mistakes are being repeated over and over again in isolation, it makes the learning process much harder and much slower. The sharing of failure needs to be seen as an important contribution to the success of the group and the success of the organization.

Fail often but fail small

Where failures become catastrophic, they are often very large failures and can result in the destruction of an organization (e.g. Barings Bank, NHS University, etc). Even when the organization survives, a catastrophic failure can seriously damage an organization’s reputation (e.g. BP, Nasa, etc). The trick is to iterate quickly so that any failures are quickly identified, short-lived and at a small level. By encouraging experimentation and innovation at a small scale, the lessons can be learned before significant resources are invested.

Make failure survivable

Linked to the previous point, the board and management team of an organization need to make sure that failures do not destroy the organization. Equally individuals who fail must be protected and possibly praised for their innovation. If a culture emerges that failure is met with punishment, then people will quickly learn to avoid doing anything new or innovative and this can be far more damaging to the organization as a whole.

In conclusion, by openly sharing our failure stories, learning how to fail fast and often, and making failure survivable then we will be well on the road to creating truly innovative organizations and teams. If we can learn to reduce the stigma around failure, we will become more successful innovators, social reformers and entrepreneurs.

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