In my workshops on building an agile mindset, one of the elements we talk about is shifting our perception of failure. It’s fair to say that the word ‘failure’ has had bad press, with a long association with negativity.
At some time, many of us have thought, heard or said, ‘failure isn’t an option’!
If we consider the number of years we’ve spend in an education system where pass or fail is a binary construct, it’s no surprise that we associate failure with punishment. Now, with new and agile ways of working, failure is celebrated as a much-needed process to drive a culture of iteration and innovation. It’s no longer a matter of fail OR succeed, it’s now about failing TO succeed. Failing it to nail it, as I describe it to clients.
While it’s not a new concept to start ups, it can be a frightening one for many leaders looking to build a more adaptive culture. Leaders understand the goodness associated with failure: creating an environment that promotes innovation, avoiding big investments until you’re sure they be successful as well as gathering key lessons for the entire business - yet it’s often our mindset that holds us back from embracing failure and actively seeking it out.
The shift from ‘failure avoidance to failure seeking’ demands commitment at two levels:
The individual mindset - to let go of a conventional failure paradigm
Organisational level - to build a culture that supports it
Individual mindset: from failure avoidance to failure seeking
Seeing failure as a path to success is a shift in thinking for most of us. Whilst we’ve seen the quotes by Thomas Edison on failing 10,000 times before creating the successful light bulb, along with numerous other lessons from history about learning through failing, the reality of jumping in without the wisdom of historical hindsight isn’t easy.
Angela Duckworth, author of ‘Grit: The power of passion and perseverance’, suggests looking for opportunities to fail as a way to build a tolerance for it, labelling it ‘exposure therapy’. One example suggested is that if you are a writer, send your manuscript to so many publishers that rejection notices will outnumber positive responses. Find ways to experience rejection to build resilience.
It’s not just our schooling that has associated failure with punishment. Through our working lives, successful outcomes and solutions are typically rewarded and celebrated over experimenting and learning from mistakes. We have not been well conditioned for ‘grit’ to test, fail and learn.
The organisational culture needs to support individuals in building a mindset that seeks failure. As a visual person, I created this Organisational Curve to represent the levels of commitment a business can demonstrate to drive an innovative culture where it’s safe to fail.
Organisational level: making it happen
An organisation that supports ‘failing it to nail it’ will demonstrate it through systemic changes. Here’s a model to help you signal commitment, and not just paying lip service to the notion of experimenting and ‘failing to learn’.
The culture to build the innovation that is derived from failure (y axis) is the commitment level to build Psychological Safety (x axis).
To quickly assess the level of Psychological Safety in your workplace, ask yourself: To what extent is it safe to:
Here’s a quick overview what the commitment levels may look like (x axis):
Before we jump into an assumption that high organisational commitment is a Utopian state, it’s worth referencing a couple of organisations - one a start-up/disruptor, the other an established business - that demonstrate support of failing:
If you follow the Netflix story, you’ll see one failure after another since launching in 1991, from Blockbuster’s rejection to their early failed movie subscription service and database collapses. Now, they proudly say that failure is very much an option and pathway to learning, making it part of their organisational DNA.
Based in the Netherlands, ING clearly understands the importance of mistakes and failing as an integral part of their agile transformation. ING clearly communicates that ‘if one doesn’t make a mistake, they are not stretching themselves enough’. To support this mantra, they introduced ‘stupidity walls’ where employees are encouraged to post their mistakes. Tribes highlight their biggest mistakes, proudly applaud them and focus on the lessons they have delivered.
I’m keen to hear of other examples of how organisations demonstrate Psychological Safety and ways to support ‘failing it to nail it’.
This topic is covered in more detail in one of the 18 Learning Bumps from the Change Pick n Mix agile learning program. Click here to find out more about this future-forward learning approach I’ve developed with Dr Jen Frahm.
And lots more about the agile mindset and new ways of working in my book ‘Hacking for Agile Change’ and workshops run onsite at your organisation.