We often hear about the importance of failure when driving new ideas or new businesses. We’re given advice to Fail Early, Fail Often, and Fail Cheap. While this well-meaning advice is accurate on the whole the reality is that failure in most organizations comes with pretty heavy consequences. Within mature organizations a failed initiative can have a dramatic impact for both the individual and the long term success of organization itself.
Is your organization struggling to drive new innovation initiatives? The culprit may be that your employees are too afraid to fail. When talking with organizations I often hear the same refrain – we want our people to innovate but they won’t step forward to lead new innovation initiatives. Earlier this year I consulted with a company that was struggling with the same problem. The organization had been around for over 25 years and just a couple of years earlier a new CEO was brought in from Silicon Valley. The new CEO saw a lot of potential within the organization but too much of that potential was locked up behind department silos or trapped in the mindset of how things had always been done. He wanted his people to be free to innovate and drive the next wave of ideas and opportunity for the organization but after two years he wasn’t seeing the results he had hoped for.
For the longest time business and military leaders wouldn’t dare utter the word failure in front of their organizations. For many the credo was that failure wasn’t an option. Times have certainly changed but many organizations are just scratching the surface in addressing the difficult issues surrounding failure.
In business we often launch new initiatives without thinking through the “what if’s?” of the project failing. Instead we get to the end of the road and the initiative didn’t turn out as planned. Rather than chalking up one big failure at the end you can break the initiative up into pieces and evaluate each stage along the way.
When executives are allowed to hide their innovation failures the entire organization suffers. False expectations are set for the entire group of executives, innovation leaders see their careers scuttled, and every other employee fails to learn from the failure. Without clear organizational expectations of documenting, sharing, and learning from our failures we will continue to see them covered up. Left to our own devices we will naturally seek to avoid our failures and move into self-preservation mode. In my work helping organizations to build strong innovation processes this is a common issue but it can be resolved.
In my last post I had highlighted the benefits of being a young entrepreneur in experiencing failure sooner rather than later in life (Why Youth Can Be an Advantage in Being an Entrepreneur). As I was working on that story I kept thinking about how the same advice holds true for the young employee as well. Learning from our failures doesn’t have to equate to getting older. Last week I published an article on The 5 Traits of Those Who Learn and Grow from Failure for YouTern.com, a publication focused on students looking for internships or recent college graduates.
Last week I did a story about Dun & Bradstreet CEO Jeff Stibel (@Stibel) on how he had created a Failure Wall at his company in an attempt to build a tolerance for risk-taking and failure within the organization’s culture (Post Here). I was just able to watch a similar interview that the Huffington Post had done a week prior with Jeff and three other guests. I found the discussion with the other guests absolutely bizarre but worth addressing. On one hand they were all praising Jeff for his ability to create a culture that has learned to tolerate failure without being fired. But on the other hand they all expressed deep concern over what would happen if someone took a picture of someone’s failure from the wall and shared it on social media. This is exactly the fear bordering on paranoia that Jeff is trying to address with his Failure Wall.
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