Being overly cautious about failure is ingrained in how many of us work. Caution can keep us from pursuing new ideas, trialing fresh approaches, and learning from setbacks. It creates a culture of fear, with evidence suggesting that as many as two in five employees are held back by fear of failure. One study also indicated that the fear of failure keeps 90% of CEOs up at night.
Making room for failure in our process and creating healthy strategies for dealing with unexpected failures can strengthen and streamline our productivity. If it’s within your control as a leader, you can also create an environment where failure is an option. And no, that isn’t a bad thing.
Here’s our take on how failure can lead to productivity and success and some suggestions for how to fail well as an individual, as a team, and as an organization.
Why Failure Leads to Success
“Winners are not afraid of losing. But losers are. Failure is part of the process of success. People who avoid failure also avoid success.” – Robert T. Kiyosaki
Failure doesn’t just have to be an emotional catalyst that motivates us to succeed. There are some far more functional reasons why it helps us achieve our goals.
The educational model of ‘Productive Failure’ demonstrates the inexorable link between failure and success. This concept posits that a short-term failure can lead to long-term success by highlighting the gaps in your knowledge that you need to address if you want to succeed. Short-term failures are, therefore, learning opportunities.
This doesn’t just apply to failures of your own making. Failure that happens for reasons outside of your control can show you variables to account for in the future. Experiences – good and bad – are needed for growth.
Failing Fast, Failing Smart
Instructional failure occurs when you intentionally take risks or explore an unknown to see what happens (sometimes called ‘failing intelligently’). Deliberately exposing yourself to failure like this gives you actual data to work with and will help you to narrow down possible future approaches that might work better. Without this kind of experimentation, you may never explore an idea to its fullest extent, discover the optimal route to success, or learn why an approach doesn’t work.
The idea of ‘failing fast’ adds to this by harnessing the concept of intelligent failure but with a sense of urgency. Crash test your ideas early on, even if you don’t feel ready. Failing fast can prove whether an idea is worth pursuing without having to go too far down the wrong path.
Why Trial and Error is Key for Businesses
To fail in a way that will benefit productivity rather than derail it, you need to make room in your process for these constructive failures. A valuable approach here is to adopt a trial and error approach.
You should leave room to pursue different options, treating them like experiments when possible. Intentionally testing concepts in an environment where risks are carefully controlled not only helps you find the best way forward it also helps you adopt a more receptive, agile, and resilient mindset.
An example of an effective trial and error practice is A/B Testing email campaigns. Rather than agonizing about which subject line will convince people to open your email, try them both. You can then model future subject lines on what you learned. This may seem like risking half your audience’s attention. However, if you rely on your subjective judgment, you risk losing far more if you pick wrong – particularly as you’ll also miss out on valuable insights.
Strategies for Dealing with Failure
“Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is a delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” – Denis Waitley
There are many valuable techniques out there for dealing with failure as an individual. It’s critical to separate failure from your sense of self while keeping it in context.
Equally important is how you deal with failures when you’re working as part of a team, especially if you’re in a management role. This is particularly crucial with the rise of remote working, as keeping an open dialogue is especially challenging in a decentralized team.
Here are 3 ways that you can create the right attitude towards failure in your workplace:
1- Open Dialogue
Discuss failure openly to make sure everyone can properly contextualize it. This will motivate people to admit to failures earlier, share when they’re having difficulties, and offer solutions to other people’s problems. This can even improve workplace relationships and create stronger collaborative environments.
2- Positive Attitude
A crucial aspect of failing well is attitude. How you react to failure when it happens, whether you were expecting it or not, will determine whether it’s a positive or negative failure.
If failure does occur, try to approach it as a positive (or at least a neutral) event. While it’s important to take failure seriously, if you can reframe it as a learning opportunity and source of valuable data, everyone will be able to recover far more quickly. A pessimistic approach to failure only results in a downward spiral.
3- Avoid the Blame Game
Think carefully about apportioning blame. While accountability is important, people often blame others (including themselves!) for failures that weren’t a result of negligence. If it was an idea that just didn’t pan out for complex environmental factors that couldn’t be foreseen, avoid blame and focus on prevention.
Fail Your Own Way
“Mistakes are part of the dues one pays for a full life.” – Sophia Loren
The value of learning from other people’s failures is indisputable. Observing mistakes made by other organizations or individuals is a shortcut to identifying problems that might arise during your own project. But someone else’s failure is simply that – someone else’s.
Taking too narrow of an approach (“it didn’t work for them, so why try?”) might lead you to ignore the subjectivity of failure and all the complex factors that go into it. By dismissing an option because it didn’t work out for someone else, you might be turning your back on the very thing that could ensure your success. There’s no real substitute for taking calculated risks and making your own mistakes.
The Right Kind of Failure
While failure can teach crucial lessons about the value of caution and thoroughness, there’s still no reason to invite unnecessary and unproductive failures. In particular, repeat failures are a clear sign that you aren’t learning from your mistakes.
Not all failures are equal. Some come down to carelessness and should definitely be avoided. So, clear guidelines, fail-safes, and quality checks are still a must, even as you look for ways to embrace instructional failure.
Failure is Inevitable; Failing Well is a Skill
Failure is an inevitability that can easily disrupt work and lead to wasted time and resources. However, when handled well, it can also lead to heightened productivity, better communication, and bottom-line results.
Creating a culture that is open to failure empowers people, enabling them to work without anxiety, build on new ideas, and collaborate effectively. Dealing with failure properly will also equip teams with the mindset they need to own and understand failure, take the insights they need from it and move on to their next task.
By making space for trial and error, viewing failure as an integral part of the process, and having strategies in place for dealing with it, you’ll benefit from greater productivity and creative resilience.