Three Ways the C-Suite Can Embrace (Gulp) Failure

Failure has a bad rap  |  June 22nd, 2017

In today’s hero culture, failure can lead to demoralization, loss of status, or loss of job. Teams that fail too much lose resources and ultimately fall apart. Fear of failure may be especially acute among company leaders, those women and men who are paid handsomely to produce success stories. So, yes, failing hurts and has real consequences. No wonder so many of us fear failure and manage our projects with safety nets and guard rails that rein in risk.

But failure has a bad rap. Failure is not only inevitable, it’s something to be embraced. And in almost all cases, success springs from a series of failed experiments, design iterations, or chances taken that led to true innovation—the ultimate market conqueror. Thirty-nine versions preceded the spray lubricant megahit WD-40.

As leaders work toward building their own experimental enterprise, it’s important to have a perspective on success and failure. You can’t avoid failure, but you can learn to cope and make the most of it. In this post, we’ll look at three ways you can embrace failure:

  • Understand that failing is learning.
  • Design processes and organizational structures that learn by failing.
  • Gain control of failure anxiety.

In the early 2000s, the first three rocket launches made by Elon Musk’s SpaceX were spectacular fiascos, and left the company one more failure away from bankruptcy. Test four, of course, succeeded, thanks to the culture he built in his company of learning from mistakes and iterating forward to build a better product. SpaceX eventually got its first break: a $1.5 billion contract with NASA. Innovative leaders like Musk, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos probably have had many more failures than successes—but their wins changed the world, and they didn’t get there on the first try

Understand that failing is learning

It’s easy to comprehend why we avoid talking about failure. For example, we may fear seeming negative in a culture of “positive thinking.” In truth, though, planning for negative outcomes is just good planning. Even CEOs don’t control the world as individuals, and we can’t make everything go our way.

And sometimes, if you look closely enough, failure really isn’t. A technology client of ours, a global travel integrator, asked if we could predict costly resource-allocation failures from their business and systems data. Weeks spent on an analysis concluded that we couldn’t predict any failures. It turned out that the data we’d been given didn’t have enough breadth to cover all the required variables. Finding nothing is an uncomfortable situation for any consultant, but the insight was that the data wasn’t correlative with the predictions that the client wanted. We shouldn’t be afraid to say that to our client. And our client shouldn’t be afraid to say that to the boss. The true failure would be not deciding what to do next.

Design your process to learn by failing

It’s not enough to accept failure if it happens; you must build in the possibility at the start of a project. When preparing, pretend there are binary outcomes—a positive and a negative. You must be prepared for both. What must go perfectly for the whole project to come together? What are those things so critical that, if they go wrong, the project craters?

But it’s not just risk planning around individual projects that we need to be concerned about. Pivotal personnel and organizational components must be addressed to create a culture around learning from mistakes.

Who should be spearheading this methodology? In traditional project management, the project manager better be thinking about both sides of what you are trying to execute. I think the true issue is the leader—the sponsor, or the person that is responsible and accountable ultimately for the investment being made.

Roche CEO Severin Schwan told an interviewer that he holds celebrations for failed projects to underscore that risk taking is endorsed from the very top of the organization. He said, “I would argue, from a cultural point of view, it’s more important to praise the people for the nine times they fail, than for the one time they succeed.”

Another way to overcome that fear is to make failing the objective. In the true agile sense, you do want failure–you want to test fast and find out what doesn’t work so you can go down the positive path. (As my former colleague, Mike Bechtel, puts it, “Failure isn’t what you’re after. You’re after big, honking, 100x success.”) We’ve spoken extensively about working with agile teams.

If you are truly agile and everything goes without a hitch to, say, roll out a new user experience, then you probably haven’t really tested the boundaries of where else success might be found. Failure can propel you to grow faster by accomplishing what innovation consultant Mike Maddock terms “failing forward.”

There is a right way to fail forward; I think of what scientist Max Delbrück called the Principle of Limited Sloppiness. He meant that your research and development activities should be open to and encourage unexpected serendipitous possibilities that appear out of nowhere. But you shouldn’t be chasing rainbows to the point where the results can’t be reproduced.

This isn’t about dressing up failure—just saying, “Well, I learned a lot!,” and moving on. You must dig deep into exactly what you learned. Maybe you discover from a project that you are not especially good at building product or increasing sales, and you need to either strengthen those skills or team up with the right person next time. Rather than throwing up your hands and saying it was out of your control, you must use your perspective to empower yourself to do better in the future.

Great leaders shouldn’t penalize well-conceived risks; they should penalize not taking risks or making the same mistakes twice.

Gain control of failure anxiety

You’ve acknowledged that failure must be planned for, and you’ve changed your perspective so that you see failure as an opportunity to learn. That’s great, but moments of anxiety will still pop up. How can those doubts be mitigated?

As Dr. Guy Winch says, focus on what you can control. Specifically, “Identify aspects of the task or preparation that are in your control and focus on those. Brainstorm ways to reframe aspects of the task that seem out of your control such that you regain control of them.” Have a plan and iterate quickly—that’s what gives you more control. Planned iteration helps you knock out unknown parameters and move to success (or failure) with speed and certainty.

Also, try visualizing your obstacles, just as an Olympics luge driver visualizes shooting down the icy, twisty track at 90 mph. In that early planning phase, when you’re acknowledging what could go wrong, really sit with it. Think about what it will mean for the project, the conversations you’ll need to have, and the solutions you’ll need to develop in order to get down your own critical path.

What’s next?

Becoming comfortable with failure is not easy, not for you or for the organization you lead. It won’t happen overnight. Use the skills we’ve detailed here to fight the knee-jerk reaction of fear, so you can commit yourself and your team to leverage failure into ultimate success.

(For more on the experimental enterprise, and how to build your own, watch our video.)