“Victory has a thousand fathers, defeat is an orphan,” so said Napoleon Bonaparte, and I personally always tend to hide a smirk when, as a Brit in the US, I am asked if “we” (the Brits) celebrate 4th of July – my response is typically, “No, no-one celebrates defeats.”

So why would anyone create an environment where it is OK to fail?

Perhaps a better question is, “Who would create an environment where any failure can be considered as potentially terminal?”

The answer to that question is a very lengthy list indeed: every government body on the planet for a start; old, entrenched businesses; autocratic organizations; non-profits (not always, but frankly my personal experience of several has been that going for success is just too risky); and this list will go on and on, ad nauseum.

In other words, any business or organization which is non-innovative, reactive, irrational, moribund, bureaucratic, rigidly hierarchical and non-learning.

Sounds like a fantastic place to work … not!

Failure is How We Learn

Failure and failing are part of life – it is how we learn, gain in confidence, educate ourselves and learn from one another. Failure is nothing to be frightened of – doing nothing because of fear-induced paralysis truly is a mind-killer and this paralysis is the downfall of careers and organizations.

Doing nothing is all too often perceived as the “safest” course of action to take, but inaction does not win or drive results. Action over inaction tends to drive growth and success, but taking action means identifying and making decisions and you will always be taking a risk.

So, what are you basing these “risky” decisions upon?

Past experience.

Past data and results.

Detailed analysis and research.

What if there is no prior data or evidence to base a decision upon?

The risk it goes wrong and the impact this will have on you personally and your career?

“Do nothing” seems like a good idea – let’s just sit tight and this will hopefully go away.

There’s No Learning Without Failure

From an organizational perspective, this is ridiculous, and there are two reasons straight off the top of my head: firstly, no failure means you aren’t learning, and: secondly, failing and reiterating is the heartbeat of being an innovator.

Why is this behavioral inclination to take the irrational, safe course of doing nothing allowed to exist, and far too often allowed to thrive in an organization?

I’m going to quote Keith Swanson, a leading independent thinker on making people more effective:

“While success is the goal, there is one thing worse than failure, and that is doing nothing. If you do nothing, you always lose. On average, people will come up with good ideas, but not always. If you fear failure, if you have a culture that punished failure, then members will not try. They will wait until they are sure they have a success, and only then act. Many, many opportunities will be lost because the risk of failure might be a fraction of the benefit of success, but that risk prevents action.”

Test – Fail, Test – Fail, Test – Succeed!

My limited exposure to Capital One back in my days in Richmond VA quickly exposed me to how they approach this issue.

Silicon Valley also has a mantra: fail fast!

I remember quizzical looks being thrown at me when I was addressing an audience at ChildFund International’s Global Strategy Committee, and I said, “I have created an environment for my team where it is OK to fail.” The CEO cast a sideways look at my boss, my boss rolled her eyes and 95% of the room had thought bubbles emerging out of their heads on the odds of me having a short-lived career there (they were right incidentally – inaction this day is not my style).

Making a decision carries risk, there is the unknown, and sometimes you simply end up making the wrong call.

You get the decision wrong.

What do you do?

Crawl under a rock and cry like a baby, blame everyone else, have a committee meeting or write a lengthy memo before you make the decision (so there are enough people around to take a piece of the blame).

Or, do you take remedial action to correct the decision, limit damage, and most importantly, work out why it was the wrong call for future reference?

The issue is not to create a blame culture, but one where decisions are made with the best information and the best intent, but understanding we live in an imperfect world where the ideal is rarely, if ever achieved.

We will never get every decision right.

We will fail, but there is a difference between failing and quitting – failing gives us an opportunity to fine tune, to be innovative and to learn, the better able to succeed.

Quitting is terminal failure and permanent loss of any chance of success.

How is Failure Treated?

There is also a difference between failing and learning, and failing and being blamed and ostracized.

Now, take what you would do with your personal decision making process, and your personal attitude to failure, and apply this to your team, and in particular your direct reports.

Are your team members prepared to act on initiative?

Will they identify a decision, threat, weakness or opportunity and bring it to you, or sit on it?

Are they prepared to fail?

What are the personal consequences for them if they do?

Is the lone, quiet voice allowed to speak up without automatically being told, “No!” by stronger personalities?

Keith Swenson, the author of When Thinking Matters in the Workplace, recently posted to his blog a rebuttal piece to an article in The Globe & Mail, extolling the virtues of “Succeed Fast” – I recommend both pieces to you.

The newspaper article, because it demonstrates how failure, even small failure is viewed as intolerable, and the irrational, herding behavior this engenders, not to mention the fallacious statement of “Succeed fast, adjust, or move on” (which incidentally implies failure and more failure).

Swenson’s post because it is an excellent riposte by a guy who truly understands what it takes to create a dynamic, innovative organization (in his spare time he is VP R&D for Fujitsu America).

In that light, I’m simply posting the links up to Swenson’s blog and post, with attribution, but not permission, hiding safely behind another mantra he also refers to – “Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness.”


And please forgive me Keith – I did plug your book too, and here is a link to your Twitter account for good measure: @swensonkeith

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