“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas Edison
All of us, on some level, have a fear of failure. We’re taught from an early age that winners are successful, with the unspoken implication that if you fail you must therefore be a loser. As leaders, we sometimes have this perception that we’re supposed to be perfect (wrong) or that the people we lead think we’re perfect (even more wrong) and we can’t let them see us fail (news flash: they’ve already seen it whether you know it or not).
The reality is that failure is actually a good thing. Yes, constant failure is a problem, but any business that’s completely lacking in failures will probably eventually fail as a business. For one thing, too much of a good thing isn’t a good thing. Constant success tends to cause our analytical skills to fade. We tell ourselves that it can’t be just luck or changes in our environment; we must be successful because of something great that we did.
Second, that belief eventually leads to damaging overconfidence. If we think we’re that great as a business, pretty soon we dismiss meaningful innovation (we don’t need that), we start to have quality problems (why monitor our work – we’re great!), and/or we stop paying attention to customer needs (we’re great – why would they ever want to leave us?). Each of these is bad; combined they can be catastrophic.
Lastly, think about how your children learn things. If they’re like mine, it’s probably by constantly asking “Why?” and “How?” Think about your business. When are you most likely to ask yourself “Why?” or “How?”? It’s when something has gone wrong. Unfortunately as humans (this is true in our personal lives as well), we seem to only work at learning when things aren’t going well.
So you’re thinking, OK, that’s great – so what? We try and learn from our mistakes already, we’re trying not to get complacent already, etc. What does that really change?
I’d suggest this: It’s not enough to handle failure in your organization. You need to encourage failure. You want your people to try new things, to experiment, to be creative. People tend to not want to do those things because they’re afraid of repercussions if they fail. So reward them for the effort. There is a company in India awards not only the best innovations of the year but also the best attempts – for the most thoughtful and well-executed failures. When they first launched the program, almost no one entered out of fear of embarrassment. People saw the “winners” being congratulated on stage with the CEO and now they get 100+ entries each year.
The point is this: define what “good” failures are, then reward them. Remember that “Failure is the tuition you pay for success” (Walter Brunell). Ask yourself: are we going to be Harvard graduates or junior high dropouts?