Designing Failure into your Company Culture
“I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” -- Thomas Edison
If Tom worked for your company today, where would he sit in the office? Would he be on the leadership team helping his teams innovate for the company? Or would he be sitting with HR, getting told to pack up his office?
Companies talk about being open and accepting of failure, with innovative leaders sharing how and what they’ve learned from failure. It’s the hip new thing.
Why should companies talk about failure? Not because it’s trendy, but because it can help create confidence in your culture. Which can lead to more positive thinking. Which can lead to new ideas. Which can lead to positive results for your company.
Research backs up this idea. In a study released in early 2017, companies that let employees know that failing on a task or a project was ok led to increased sales and productivity.
Employers should want to create a culture where employees learn from mistakes, and where failure and constructive feedback are part of the journey in learning and growing as leaders and as individuals. This doesn’t mean we need to accept laziness, poor decision making, etc. But failure in an organization can be designed well by:
Companies that fail well do so through a thoughtful process. They use stretch assignments to test new ideas and discover what works best. Stretch assignments are projects, initiatives, or goals that may not ultimately reach the objective. Before the stretch assignments start, the company asks the right questions to understand what success looks like, and predict potential obstacles and challenges.
In an organization, or just in our daily lives, it’s more common to see recognition and praise for others’ accomplishments. We can easily “like” something through social media or acknowledge a job well done. Communicating openly means organizations share when it's failed and that it's still failing – not only the successes or wins that happened after the failure.
Asking for feedback
As an individual, you can be your own worst enemy. Mistakes happen. Things break. Employees don’t need to know when they’ve failed; they already know. But employers need to create the conversation for employees to ask and receive for the right feedback. Instead of asking, “How am I doing?” employees should ask, “What’s one thing I can do better?” And by supporting conversations that allow for both praise and criticism, managers can provide more specific feedback to the employee.
Companies can say that they accept failure – but only by formalizing it through training and development initiatives will you see the movement you desire. This can mean that managers make time for feedback and frequent 1:1s, as well as ensuring employees follow through with development activities within and outside the organization.
Designing failure in your company can feel counter-intuitive. But by designing it the right way, companies can actually support employees in figuring out how to own, learn, and ultimately create success from their mistakes.