Failure is a mindset, it's a belief that is keeping you stuck. It's a way that people look at the world, situations and events. You don't have to see it that way, though. In fact, if you don't look at it that way, you will be a lot more innovative and be more willing to take risks and do things differently.
Language is important, and when it comes to failure, there's a whole heap of negativity and guilt associated with that word.
Failure is just something that happens in life, it’s part of learning. It happens to everyone. But if you don't choose to call your outcomes "a failure", then it doesn't have the same negative impact on you and your organisation.
Could it be that the answer is as simple as reframing the concept?
The concept of failure
Failure is a part of learning. The first time you wanted to ride a bike, I'm sure you were not able to get on it and ride down the street and then do a bunny hop over the curb. You would have fallen over. You most likely needed to start with training wheels and slowly learned how to keep your balance, use the pedals, the breaks and how to steer, etc. However, the first time you didn’t get it right, you didn’t run and tell your mum that you're a failure and just gave up, you just focussed on learning to ride the bike, over and over again.
It's often a process of elimination if you think about it. You might get extremely lucky and get it right the first time, but it's far more likely that it'll be a process, in which you'll have to attempt something, then something else, and then something else. And if you view it as a process that you're adding experience to each time, that's helpful.
Thomas Edison was one of the most successful innovators in American history. In response to a question about his failures, Edison once said, “I have not failed 10,000 times—I've successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”
The impact of failure
If a leader of an organisation believes in the concept of failing, what impact does that have on the people working in that organisation?
Usually, it's where we start to see behaviors such as people being protective/defensive of what is within their responsibility, and you see actions like blame start to creep into your culture. Once that starts happening, you're not going to be able to collaborate effectively and create innovative new ways of working and delivering impact for your clients.
What we see with leaders sometimes when we're talking about encouraging experimentation and failure, is that they get this concern of, “won't it mean my team will start to make mistakes more often?”.
What makes a difference is setting up the right environment where it is safe for them to test and learn, and then share that learning across the organisation, without having a detrimental impact on your clients and the reputation of your organisation. In this scenario by testing things in the right way, it is possible to have your cake and eat it too.
Testing and giving up trying to appear perfect
Failure comes up a lot when we're talking with leaders about testing things with their clients. For example, we hear leaders saying “we are worried about presenting a non-polished version of a program or service to clients as it might make us look bad."
Really, they're worried about what people might think of them. But the reality is, in our experience clients love to be involved, and they love to be able to provide feedback. We encourage leaders to share with clients those rough first drafts, so they can be involved in the creation right from the very beginning. This early feedback helps ensure leaders are on the right track before they invest more resources into what they are creating.
Also, a non-polished example often invites more honest feedback than a fully completed product or service, as people feel more comfortable sharing early feedback on a work in progress, rather than a final product where feedback may risk hurting people's feelings if changes are suggested.
The key is in how you frame the situation. Set the tone by stating that you're looking for feedback. Don't think you don't want to fail or hear anything negative about the solution, because others will sense it. Go in with an open and learning mindset, and you will receive it back.
There you have it! Retrain yourself to see failure as a learning experience and see how it changes your entire organisation. You'll notice people reacting differently to you, you'll notice yourself reacting differently in various situations, and you'll become a lot more curious and a lot more open to new ideas, innovation, experimentation, and all of the other good things.
So, let's stop using the word failure and start talking about learning.