Find success by creating a culture of failure.

By Danny Nathan

Find success by creating a culture of failure.

I have a personal mantra…

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So much is baked into those two little words for me...

They're a reminder of a lesson that one of my acting teachers instilled in her students: a philosophy that she called the Cosmic Yes. In essence, she was describing the need to be open to anything that may happen during a scene in order to bring a character to life. In my experience, it's also a philosophy that applies to life in general. Simply put, learn to go with the flow and say yes to the challenges in front of you — even if the result is abysmal. (And yes, I hold a college degree in acting of all things.)

Fail beautifully is a constant reminder to try — even if the result is abysmal. It's a reminder that anything worth trying is worth putting real effort into — even if the result is abysmal. Most importantly, fail beautifully is a reminder to myself that failure is a learning experience.

This is so important that it's one of our core beliefs at Apollo 21 and a driving aspect of our approach. Should you choose to work with us, particularly through a Design Sprint, you'll hear me advocate loudly for the value of failure. Failure is how we learn.

Overcoming Our Fear of Failure

Most people don't learn to celebrate failures. From a young age, we're instilled with the belief that failure is negative. Our education system is grounded in the notion that a failing grade indicates that you didn't learn. Without delving into the question of whether this is a shortcoming of our education system (There's an excellent diatribe from The Atlantic that examines, in brief, the value of memorizing vs. learning.), the idea that failure equals a lack of learning might begin to feel uncomfortable around the time we leave high school. At this point, whether it's in college or in a professional setting, we tend to encounter greater opportunity to learn from our mistakes instead of learning by memorizing. Whether we do is different question.

In order to better understand the "failure is bad" mentality, it helps to break down what we mean by "failure." Amy Edmondson is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, a chair established to support the study of human interactions that lead to the creation of successful enterprises that contribute to the betterment of society. She categorizes failures into 3 groups:

“Failures fall into three categories: preventable ones in predictable operations, which usually involve deviations from spec; unavoidable ones in complex systems, which may arise from unique combinations of needs, people, and problems; and intelligent ones at the frontier, where “good” failures occur quickly and on a small scale, providing the most valuable information.”

Edmondson further breaks these categories down into what she calls the Spectrum of Reasons for Failure:

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As I examined Edmondson's perspective on failure, I came to the realization that she's provided a framework around how to assess any particular moment of failure. She's helped bring specificity to my already-ingrained mantra by verbalizing what I've had trouble articulating myself. Applying Edmondson's categorical breakdown of failures along this spectrum of failure helps to clarify the type of failure that befits each category.

“Tolerating unavoidable process failures in complex systems and intelligent failures at the frontiers of knowledge won’t promote mediocrity. Indeed, tolerance is essential for any organization that wishes to extract the knowledge such failures provide.”

Where, in my opinion, Edmondson's spectrum begins to break down is along the continuum of "blameworthy" to "praiseworthy." The notion that a failure is blameworthy, in spite of being attributable to the individual, forces us to assume that the shortcoming is also with the individual. However, in a professional setting, our company is only as strong as the people within it. Even a failure of deviance — an explicit choice by an individual to violate a prescribed process — can ultimately be blamed on the company. We have chosen to include a cultural misfit (meant literally — one who doesn't fit the culture of our company) amongst our team. In doing so, is there any surprise that this individual has deviated from our prescribed practices?

The fail beautifully mantra is as befitting of Preventable Failures in Predictable Operations as it is of failures closer to the frontier. These category 1 failures can provide value by helping us identify people who don't fit our culture, lapses in attention that may be due to overwork or fatigue, or inefficiencies in training, allowing us to ensure that ability isn't lacking. Fans of the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS) might call these failures a "wrong person, right seat" issue.

Identifying category 2 failure points — Unavoidable Failures in Complex Systems — helps us determine the weaknesses in our processes, giving us the opportunity to correct them. If we ignore these failures, then eventually they slide downward into the first category. Once identified and encountered repeatedly, an unavoidable failure due to complexity becomes a preventable failure. While still a learning opportunity, if this occurs then we have essentially failed twice.

Last we have Intelligent Failures at the Frontier. When we set out to identify the unknown, we don't begin the effort by assuming that the unknown will become known on the first attempt. Regardless of whether we're attempting to cure cancer or focusing on increasing customer lifetime value, exploratory failures are learning experiences to be embraced and shared. They help us better understand the unknown — the why, how, and what. Failures at the Frontier help us prove and disprove our theories so that we can make clearer decisions in the future. Without failure at the Frontier, we wouldn't make progress.

Failure is Emotional

Given all that we've invested in avoiding failure, it's no wonder that, as humans, our emotions are deeply tied to our perceived failures (or successes). In order embrace a fail beautifully mentality, leaders must invest in the approach with purpose. As Edmondson points out:

“Only leaders can create and reinforce a culture that...makes people feel both comfortable with, and responsible for, surfacing and learning from failures.”

Essentially, failure needs to become a regular part of the conversation in your organization — not from the perspective of hunting down the person responsible for the failures, but rather identifying what happened and how the existing system or process broke down to enable such failure to occur.

With this structure in place, the organization can take responsibility for failures, removing the onus (and the blame) from the individual. Only the most egregiously devious failures should hold ramifications for the person who failed, and even then, only with a thorough examination of how the wrong person ended up in their seat in the first place. What appears as a devious failure by an individual may be the result of a failure in process during hiring (for example). But the only way to find out if that's the case is to embrace failure and openly examine the cause.

To do so successfully, an organization must acknowledge the emotional component of failure and aim to make surfacing these shortcomings tolerably comfortable, both in the moment and in the future.

Creating a Culture of Failure

Set the expectation amongst your team that failure is a beautiful thing. By establishing that failure is an expected part of growth and progress, companies can build a fail beautifully culture that encourages employees to share and learn from missteps in equal measure with successes. This approach must be evident from the top down. It must be infused at the cultural and operational level of an organization in order to be successful.

This type of cultural shift comes to bear in process and in personality. A leader who can't accept their own failures can't expect their employees to do so either. An organization that seeks to place blame on the individual for a failure of process can't expect to keep employees happy and committed to their work.

Instead, leaders can embrace failures by giving them due focus and making clear that the ramifications of failure will not breed fear of repercussions. For example, in employee reviews, asking the right questions can prove demonstrative:

  • "How have I failed in the last quarter? What would you have done differently? In the future, what will you take away from my failure to prevent repeating my mistakes?"
  • "Tell me where you've failed in the last quarter. What have you learned from this failure? How would you go about teaching others in the organization about your failure so that they can avoid the same mistake?"
  • "Do you believe there are failures that have come about recently due to issues with our processes? Could you help us identify them so we can create better, more streamlined processes?"

At first, folks on your team will probably push back. They'll avoid the question — after all, they haven't learned to embrace failure. But over time, adept leaders will learn to draw out from their employees these moments of failure by demonstrating that resulting repercussions are focused on fixing the problems instead of finding scapegoats. Leading by example is also important here. Owning our failures is difficult, but if leaders can be accountable to their teams, then teams will ultimately be more comfortable with accountability in return.

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