It’s Not Failure. It’s a Way of Discovering What Doesn’t Work

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Apr 25, 2018

Thomas Edison once said, “I have never failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” While I hope none of us has such an enormous ego we claim to have never failed, I would also hope over a long career we can all point to 10,000 ways that won’t work. Many of the best lessons we learn in life are from our failures rather than our successes. Failure means you’re taking risks, trying new approaches, and stepping up to challenges that will stretch you and cause you to grow. Failures happen constantly in our careers, and we learn through experience what works and what doesn’t.

I’m an experiential learner. I learn more from doing, experimenting, tweaking, testing, and iterating than I do from reading a book. Often the intellectual exercises are just the very first step, but what we really need to do is put our knowledge into practice, iterate on the experience, and try it again until we perfect our craft.

What does this mean to us as leaders? Our employees must be given those same learning opportunities. We need to embrace failure in order to enable development, advancement, learning, and growth. We have to recognize it’s their time to try and potentially fail. As leaders we should step back, listen to and hear their ideas, provide support, and let the process take its course. We should encourage experimentation and by doing so, we invest in developing employees.

Through experimentation, taking risks, and intelligently learning from experiences, our employees will grow. When employees fail we look for the lessons to be drawn from those failures rather than berating, punishing, or making an example of the employee. Too often we equate leadership with brashness, harsh responses, and generally uncivil behavior. That’s not leadership, it’s impatience, immaturity, and insecurity.

Failing is part of innovation

Anyone reading this own an Amazon Fire phone? Likely not. Yet, Amazon continues to thrive, not in spite of its high tolerance for failure but because of it. In describing his organization’s culture of innovation, Founder Jeff Bezos said, “If you’re going to take bold bets, they’re going to be experiments. And if they’re experiments, you don’t know ahead of time if they’re going to work. Experiments are by their very nature prone to failure. But a few big successes compensate for dozens and dozens of things that didn’t work.”

When organizations take bets as part of a culture of innovation, over time they will see some amazing success, along with many ideas that don’t work out. That’s okay. In fact, failure is a point on the path to success, with one big caveat. Failure equals learning only when we have created cultures where people can talk openly about why something didn’t work and take the responsibility to try a new direction or scrap the project for a new, better bet. Failure is only failure when we shift blame or miss the learning opportunity.

As we build a culture of openness and accountability, we empower teams to learn, to listen, to create, and to ultimately work in ways they hadn’t considered at the outset. When we invest openness and allow failure as part of the innovative process, we create the potential for unimaginable success.

Leaders help teams learn from failing

Success doesn’t happen in a vacuum, especially when it comes to scaling from startup to public company. There may be an initial visionary, but if the team isn’t empowered to contribute and build on that vision, or offer up new ones, projects and companies fizzle.

Leaders, it’s our job to help our teams learn from failure, and these three ingredients are essential to the process:

1. Empower decision-making at all levels: Encourage people to make their own decisions. Offer your view, but let the person responsible know they have the final call. When people know they are trusted to make decisions, they become more passionate, committed, and engaged. The business speeds up, innovation springs to life, and you have happier employees.

2. Model openness: Let the team know that nothing is gained from hiding viewpoints in order to seek consensus. Encourage dialogue and discussion. Mistakes happen. Be open about them and encourage openness in others.

3. Encourage a growth mindset: Serve as a resource for your teams, but work hard to avoid a rescue mentality. Provide warnings, but don’t swoop in and take over. Allowing people to learn from failures provides valuable experiences we learn from it.

Empower them to stretch

In her book, Multipliers, Liz Wiseman talks about what it means for managers to empower those around them to stretch and perform at levels beyond what they thought possible. She notes, “When people are stretched and working above their current capability level, they are bound to trip up and take false steps.” Yet, she doesn’t classify these steps along the way as failures, rather they are steps in the journey that leads to success. She encourages layers of support provided by colleagues who can “offer guidance without undertones of judgment and disappointment.”

Imagine if Edison, when working on his many inventions, had a boss who stood over this shoulder and told him all the things he was doing wrong. Aren’t we all glad he didn’t and that he was the sort of inventor who valued iteration as part of the process. Edison saw things differently. About his 10,000 failures he went on to say, “When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”

Are there tools that can help? Last year we at Instructure came across a tool that directs this experiential learning process. Learners are given a challenging scenario and asked to record themselves solving the problem or addressing the concern. Scenarios include situations like demoing a new product, delivering a hard performance review, or presenting on a new topic. Learners are then asked to watch their video and grade themselves. As we know, we’re all our own harshest critics. Learners going through this process record themselves on average 4.5 times before submitting the video to be viewed by others. It’s proof we learn and grow by trying, evaluating, iterating, and yes, even failing. By the way, we loved the tool so much we bought the company.

Keep trying new things, embracing failure, and improving along the way. And most importantly, create an environment where your employees can do the same.

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