Is Failure Really the Seed to Success?
Failure doesn’t feel like a fun anecdote when it’s happening. It’s easy to pay lip service to a so-called culture of failure. In reality, it is hard earned.
Failure fits perfectly into a world where the past is no longer a predictor to the present. Nowadays, you can hardly get past a business journal or magazine that doesn’t use the term VUCA (“Volatility”, “Uncertainty”, “Complexity” and “Ambiguity”) to describe the current status quo. According to these publications, the new mantra states that there is no success without failure.
But does that realization actually help? Is taking risks and then failing actually rewarded? Doesn’t the wastefulness inherent in failure not just increase the economic pressure to succeed? For most organisations, it does. The tangible pain of today’s losses outweighs the intangible promise of future success.
So, you play it safe. You press failure into booklets, force it into kick-off workshops and lectures, scribble it on flipcharts, and have it radiated onto the auditorium from PowerPoint slides. You limit yourself to telling stories.
Stories of failure are appealing. They allow people to be authentic, to talk about vulnerabilities and self-doubt. Failures make for great storytelling and can be wonderfully marketed – in retrospect. Once the loss of time, cost and status that crash landing is over. Once the failure is understood to the point where it can be transformed through narrative and sold as (future) success. Once it can be offset into a positive balance.
The actual message executives seem comfortable exhibiting is that failures are only great once they are overcome.
Yet this way of thinking about failure is contrary to the positive effects it’s meant to bring about. So, to all leaders wanting to encourage their teams to fail and therefore to succeed, please take a moment to reflect on what success in failure really means.
What is failure in organisations?
At first sight, failure and success appear to be complete opposites. To succeed is not to fail, and failure is the absence of success. But on closer examination, the two concepts have a more complex relationship.
In an organisational context, failure is sometimes bad, sometimes inevitable and sometimes good. Understanding the spectrum of reasons for failures will assist organisations in creating an effective strategy to learn from them. Based on work by Edmondson, the below illustration outlines three broad categories of failure types (1).
Avoidable failures (e.g. deviance, inattention, lack of skill/training, inadequate processes, reckless conduct)
- The failures in this category are considered bad and should be corrected and/or avoided, as they result from preventable mistakes or deviances. They are easiest to spot in routine work, where operations are predictable. With proper training and support, they should not frequently occur. If they do, the causes can generally be easily identified and solved.
Unavoidable failures (e.g. complex systems, task difficulty, uncertainty of future events)
- These failures are often the most difficult ones to surface, as they occur in complex systems, when the factors surrounding the work are difficult to explain, predict or understand. As a result, there is a lower likelihood of an individual reporting the failure. There is no one person to blame, as usually no one person is responsible. Take the example of the 9/11 attacks. The information flow between large, complex organisations and government agencies that pride themselves on secrecy, made it difficult to anticipate the disaster.
- Smaller failures are equally unavoidable. They stem from the complexity and uncertainty inherent in many industries, systems and processes. In order to avoid consequential failures, it’s important to uncover and correct the smaller ones before they line up in just the wrong way and become a large problem. The importance lies in failing fast, while the consequence is still palatable. This is contrary to an inherent psychological bias known as the sunk cost fallacy, in which individuals tend to continue pursuing an endeavour because resources (time, money, energy, pain) have been invested in it. This irrational bias is based on an attempt to rectify the cognitive dissonance of paying for something without a return on investment (3). In such cases, it’s important to keep in mind that what’s done is done, regroup and move forward.
Intelligent failures (e.g. innovating, experimenting, hypothesis testing)
- These types of failures can generally be considered good because they help an organisation push its boundaries and innovate, therefore ensuring its future growth and success. The failures in this category occur in frontier work, such as R&D; when trial and error is necessary and when answers are not known in advance. Carol Dweck speaks about this notion in her famous book Mindset, in which she argues the importance of giving ourselves permission to take miss-steps along the journey to our goal, as it provides valuable opportunities to learn (4). Oftentimes, learning what doesn’t work is every bit as valuable, if not more, than learning about what does work.
Why We Don’t Speak up Sooner
Why is it so difficult for us to admit when we’ve lost our bearings? One explanation is that for all the stories about failure, few focus on the cost, pain, and even emotional strain when failure occurs. Our modus operandi is often powered by an implicit belief that if one is prepared and intelligent enough, failure should is preventable.
In addition, our brain is primitive when it comes to acceptance and fitting in. In the past, this was related to our survival – expulsion from the tribe posed a significant threat to an individual’s life. This urge for social affiliation is still strong nowadays, despite the fact that we no longer need a tribe to fight off a family of bears or survive in the wilderness. While people rationally know that the dangers of failing are seldom life-threatening, this primal instinct has stayed with us in the form of fear of rejection or social exclusion (5). Thus, accepting and admitting to failure requires a reframing of subconscious beliefs.
How to Learn from Failure?
“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”
As we’ve seen, organizational failures are anything but clear-cut and the difficulty in admitting failure is deeply rooted in our psyche. If you’re aiming to create a fail fast culture, a key point to keep in mind is the need for a psychologically safe environment.
A famous Google study spanning 240 workplaces showed that the main distinction between innovative, high performing teams and dysfunctional teams is psychological safety (6).
A safety culture is not the same thing as a blame-free culture – it’s about creating a balance between learning and accountability. That includes building a common understanding of various types of failures. For instance, in highly innovative areas (such as R&D) fast failure should be encouraged more than in very controlled or systematic areas (such as accounting).
To foster a culture of failure means to examine in detail what the unique and specific challenges and risks are in your area or team and what actions can create the culture needed in your specific environment.
Having a clear process around detecting and analysing failure is also key. Employees should be encouraged or even incentivized to speak up when they notice something hasn’t gone right – even if they don’t have a solution to the problem.
How Does the Organization Fail the Individual?
While reporting itself should never be punished, certain behaviours (like reckless conduct) might be. As such, it’s important to understand the context in which the failure took place and avoid playing the blame game.
That involves recording the failure/“what happened?”, instead of who failed/“who did it?”. Oftentimes, incidents triggered by human error are symptomatic of a larger system failure. In these cases, employees need to feel like they can come forward safely and have the organisation ask, “how did we (the organisation) fail the individual?”.
In order to get employees to speak up in the first place, it’s first necessary to train leaders on responding to employees without anger, frustration or other types of disapproval. Leaders are an integral building block in creating a psychologically safe culture. Having a clear process around detecting and analysing failure is also key. Employees should be encouraged or even incentivized to speak up when they notice something hasn’t gone right – even if they don’t have a solution to the problem.
Do employees see each other experiment on a daily basis without repercussions? On that note, rewarding the struggle and not just the success can help. Under complex and uncertain circumstances, it’s especially important to act in spite of the fear of failure.
Failure isn’t final, but neither is success. Yet oftentimes, the fear of failure seems stronger than the pull of success. This phenomenon is known as loss aversion bias. People prefer avoiding losses more than acquiring an equivalent gain. In fact, the pain of losing is psychologically twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining (7).
More and Better Stories
Leaders should serve as an example and share their own stories of failure, as they are the ones creating and enforcing culture. But rather than having just a handful of “key failure stories” that get reshared time and again because they worked out beautifully, think about how to get a richness and variety in the stories. Not every failure can be repacked into a marketable lesson learned or seed of future success. For instance, have a dedicated time and place to talk about failure at a monthly “Fuck Up Night” or a Slack channel where employees share stories on a rotating basis, in order to get comfortable with a simple truth: Sometimes a failure is just that, and nothing more.
Failure is not as straightforward a concept as we’ve been led to believe; especially in an organisational context. In fact, it’s up to the organisation to provide guidance around the topic, so that individuals can feel supported and empowered enough to fail well.
True failure is accompanied by acting despite not always knowing what the right next step is but making the best possible choice and moving forward still. To succeed is to try. To fail is to give into fear and not try.
- Edmondson, A. (2014, August 01). Strategies for Learning from Failure. Retrieved August 15, 2020, from https://hbr.org/2011/04/strategies-for-learning-from-failure.
- Gandossy, R. P., Tucker, E., & Verma, N. (2006). 9/11: The Surprise That Shouldn’t Have Been. In Workforce wake-up call: Your workforce is changing, are you? (p. 32). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
- Olivola, C. Y. (2018). The Interpersonal Sunk-Cost Effect. Psychological Science, 29(7), 1072-1083. doi:10.1177/0956797617752641.
- Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books.
- Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation.
Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497–529. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.117.3.497.
- Duhigg, C. (2016, February 25). What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team. Retrieved August 15, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html?auth=login-email.
- Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1977). Prospect Theory. An Analysis of Decision Making Under Risk. Econometrica, 47, 2 (Mar., 1979), 263-291. doi:10.21236/ada045771.
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