If failure was something tangible, with mass, something you could see, taste and hear then it would be unsightly, unsavoury and deafening– at least based on how many organizations react to it. Yet, most would agree that failure is important for learning and improving. In business, only venture capitalists and a handful of far-sighted organizations appear to plan for some of their investments or projects to fail.
So why is it that employee failure– be it at the CEO or front-line level– is so frowned upon?
The fallacy of perfection surely plays a part– our expectation that things can and should be done without mistakes.
To be sure there are endevaours where the standard of care must be and is very high– space flight, surgery, commericial air flight– because they literally have to do with life and death. However, these are also areas where a lot can be planned for and systems and processes have been developed over decades to standardize how things are done in order to minimize fatal errors.
Yet, here, too we know that there are failures– that zero risk is impossible, because not all the variables are controllable. This is only natural in a universe driven by entropy, as ours appears to be. It is possible to impose order at a local level, for a period of time but rarely possible to achieve it at a global level, indefinitely.
The point is not to eliminate failure and risk but to learn from it and adapt continually, and be aware that what may have worked reliably for a time in the past is not always guaranteed to do so in the future.
So failure is useful. It is a fundamental characteristic of both our world and of natural processes, including ones such as evolution. Businesses, which are ultimately organisms in their own right, must learn to harness the power of failure and to create systems which incorporate what they learn from it. They must engender a workplace culture that is not built on aversion to risk but one that embraces it and looks for ways to address failures as they happen– this goes to what we call the core foundations of an organizational system.
As inventors have known for aeons, it is at best an 80:20 ratio in terms of failure:success– probably biased even more towards failure. Yet, like a phoenix, discoveries and insights rise out of the ashes of trying and failing and trying again.
So the next time employees comes to you with a report of failure, avoid the temptation to chastise and reprimand– instead help them understand why they failed and what they can learn, in order to try doing things differently next time. This, we believe, is a critical element of leadership – one that separates effective leaders from people who simply seek to manage or supervise others.