Are You Failing Enough?

We all have an inherent aversion to (/fear of) failure.

Some of this is about how we might be perceived by others: The word ‘failure’ can sound alarmingly close to mis-management, poor judgement, even incompetence.

And some of this aversion reflects our own internal conscience: We’re all operating with finite resources, and when something we do fails, we have to recognise that we have lost (/wasted) those resources for no results. Too many of these and you won’t be around for very long.

So it makes perfect sense; due to a mixture of pride and conscientiousness, we want to be associated with success.

In fact it further makes sense that, to avoid all these negative attributes, the best thing to do is follow tested and proven techniques, err your decisioning on the side of caution, and avoid risk-taking behaviour.

And you’ll already be guessing where I’m going with this, ‘cos mankind’s most amazing achievements and biggest discoveries came from doing the exact opposite: experimenting, innovating, and stepping into the unknown.

Just check back to my previous series on differentiation (especially the Leadership one); if we avoid the risk of failure we’ll never be the ones to stand out and lead movements and be known for our passion and innovation.

It needs a compromise. Something pragmatic, founded on encouraging experimentation, and managing/anticipating/allowing for fallout.

Think about:

  • Creating a culture where you recognise and reward initiative and innovation. Don’t punish failure, so long as the logic behind the decisions is sound, and it’s been executed well. Take a lead from one of my management thinking heroes Tom Peters who famously calls us to “reward excellent failure, and punish mediocre success”. By the way, the larger your organisation becomes, the nearer impossible this is to achieve.
  • Mitigating the potential impact of failures by having a mixed portfolio of safe bets and more ‘risky’ strategies, so that you’re never betting the business. And, never bet the business.
  • Testing your hypotheses where possible with a pilot scheme, and always being open with your communities where you are involving them in something that might not proceed into a full launch.
  • Ringfencing the experiment – What are the variables? Who might be affected? Which elements can you control, to help contain the explosion? Hint: it won’t be all of them.
  • Finally… planning, observing, measuring, and learning (reference David Kolb’s experiential learning cycle), to extract the most value from your experiments, even (especially) your failures.

However, ultimately, you also need to recognise that our environment is just too complex to model and control every single variable and potential outcome. Sometimes you just have to put it out there, releasing new energy into the world, and seeing what happens.

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