1. lack of success.
“an economic policy that is doomed to failure”
2. the neglect or omission of expected or required action.
“their failure to comply with the basic rules”
Nobody likes to talk about failure. In government, failure means blowing taxpayers’ money. In charities, it means blowing the hard-earned donations. In corporations, it might lose you a promotion, see that bonus of yours halved, or even doom the business!
But, sometimes, a word can get a bad rep, and, with failure, this must stop. We need to change the narrative. We need to redefine what failure is.
We often forget that to fail means you, at least, tried. Trying is good. Unless you are Yoda.
For years, in startup land, they have tried to remove the negative connotations with the widely misunderstood “Fail Fast Forward,” often shortened simply to “Fail Fast.” Here, failure is branded as a shortcut to success. Keep moving forward until something doesn’t work, change direction (aka pivot), repeat. Ducking and darting all over the place until, hopefully, something works. The gag is that happening upon success randomly rarely happens. This can be interpreted as a lack of strategy, or even an abdication of responsibility. That is not good.
Don’t forget that survival of the fittest comes off the back of a tonne of misfires. We need to embrace failure as an evolutionary process.
In my day job, I often start a conversation with “So why is this going to fail?” Typically, I listen to somebody explain their incredible, bullet-proof idea and tell me that I’m just a cynical old goth for daring to suggest that things may not go as they expect. Once they have gotten over themselves, that’s when progress is made. Being open to failure, being a friend of failure, giving failure a big old hug is one of the most useful things you can do.
If you were to try and rebrand failure within your organisation—how would you do it? It can be a bit tricky convincing the non-believers. You rarely find that people like to embrace that which didn’t quite go as they planned, and, worse, those mean kids in the playground might even be fail-shaming you! That said, there are several tactics which might take the sting out of it.
1. Always Start At The End
Explore the worst-case scenario. Be honest and critical. Once you’ve evaluated a few different ones, don’t just mitigate—assume it’s going to happen and plan the next iteration. The upside of this is that you may be pleasantly surprised, and, if it goes as expected, you will have your assumption validated and know where to go next.
2. No Grief In Debriefs
Get used to talking about it—not just in puff-piece debriefs but really get under the skin of it. What were the potential levers which were out of alignment? Bad Idea? Not enough budget? Wrong place, wrong time? Faulty assumptions? Listening to the boss instead of trusting your data? It launched on a Friday? What the heck happened … and why?
Take all of that good stuff and re-apply it to whatever you are planning next. What you DON’T want to do is simply throw away the initiative because it didn’t work … THIS TIME. If you have truly explored the hidden depths of your failure, then you may discover that, actually, success might only be a nudge away.
3. Failure Knows No Borders
Share it across your business. Break down silos. Tear down the wall. Shout it from every corner of your open-plan office. WE FAILED, BUT LOOK WHAT WE LEARNT. Hiding it away compounds—and can even embed—faulty assumptions.
Make case studies, break it all down, build it into your induction process, do show-and-tells, post it on your intranet (if they still exist), discuss at the water cooler. Ensure nobody forgets the what and why of it!
4. Fess Up
Broadcast it beyond your business! It’s counter-intuitive, but admitting failure, being a bit self-deprecating, and asking for advice can be turned into positive customer engagement if done properly. Ever had a problem with something you bought online? Ever had a fantastic experience around a broken product? It happens all the time—you just may not be attuned to the joy of failure. “Sorry we messed up, how can we do it better?” is a great look. Who knew failure could be so attractive?
5. Baby, We Were Hired To Fail
Build failure into all job roles. It’s not good enough to just assume that “these things happen” and move on, it must be everyone’s responsibility to work with it, talk about it, celebrate it, and demonstrate that you have learnt from it.
From an HR perspective, that means looking at performance reviews in a different light. I’m a true believer that collaboration should be a key indicator of how good anybody is (in most jobs, anyway), and what better way to appreciate how well people play together than what happens when they accidentally kick the ball over the fence.
6. Make And Break The Case
This all sounds fantastic, it’s such a shame there is no universe in which the chief exec is going to turn around and say: “Yes, I really appreciate your systemic failure plan, how much will it cost and how much cash do you need to plug up the toilet?” I suppose it could happen—it’s amazing what businesses do in the name of innovation—but let’s assume not. You have to make the case that, by embracing failure, you will:
- Be diligent and critical when creating activities,
- Document assumptions made from existing data,
- Appreciate all potential outcomes and plan accordingly,
- Work across the business to look for insight,
- Rigorously analyse results and share learnings, both positive and negative,
- Nurture a positive internal culture where everyone grows together,
- Always know what you are going to do next.
Doesn’t sound so bad, does it? So how would you redefine failure?
The crucial catalyst for positive progression.
“We used failure to fuel our amazing future”.