I was faced with a big dilemma last month. I was with my nine-year old son, teaching him to ski for the first time. I made a wrong turn at the top of the mountain, meaning we had to go down what I'll call a "challenging stretch" (for my wife, in case she is reading this).
I had a conflict in front of me. I wanted him to try the hill as I believed he could do it. But I didn't want him to get hurt. Nor did I want to have to tell my wife that I got him in a bad spot.
We have conflict at work with these two ideas as well. We want people to innovate, to try, to question - but we don’t necessarily allow for failure to be part of their journey in our workplace.
Many today see failure as inherently bad, and success is something beyond their reach. But companies who thrive on failure tend to have the deep belief they can improve their skills and abilities. They’ve embraced personal goals so compelling that they see failure as a tool for helping reach them, rather than a setback.
By encouraging mistakes, you give employees the confidence to try new things and not feel bad about it if it doesn't work out. This may seem like a pipe dream, but these companies don’t break - they bend and stay flexible over time to allow their teams to thrive on failure. How do they do it?
Redefine the meaning of "culture fit"
I'm sure I've written or talked on the idea that we want people who have the same values. And I still believe that is true - AND there is also evidence that shows individuals will adapt their judgments and beliefs to fit those of people around them.
So what if our values of "collaboration" and "teamwork" have created unintended consequences of avoiding disagreements or challenging ideas? If we are always hiring for fit, we risk missing out on the opportunity for cognitive diversity.
While diverse thinking and disagreements can be uncomfortable, they are more likely to lead teams to more creative ideas and solutions.
Define goals and problems as experiments
How many times do we think of goals in our organizations as either we get there or we don't? High stake or low stakes? Or you get to keep your job - or you're fired? How is that motivating to a team member?
By talking about goals and problems as new or novel, you create the space to make it easier to take a risk. Failure is part of the scientific method (and the one thing I remember from the 7th grade). All well designed experiments ensure we know what matters most. The problem we're defining. What we have control of and what we don't.
Create accountability towards the vision - rather than the details
Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO, once said that the organization is stubborn on their vision but flexible on details. Meaning that if you reward others who are constantly working towards testing the experiment you defined, your team members will be better able to identify and learn from mistakes.
People get anxious about making the wrong move - or worse, the perfect move.
Complexity requires less planned and designed strategies - but rather a simple process of trying out lots of different variants. Allow your team members to do the details in their own way - in exchange for accountability towards the vision.
Measure and reward risk taking
Team members and organization incentives are typically tied to increased sales or productivity, or decreased spending and inefficiencies. Meaning that the buzzwords of failure and innovation quickly lose their appeal.
If we aren't experimenting by trying new things and learning from mistakes, we're not growing. And if we aren't measuring it, then it won't happen.
Prioritize important vs urgent tasks
For reals this time. Urgent issues make us feel accomplished. Getting our inbox to zero at the end of the day should not be rewarded.
As leaders, we need to prioritize the tough issues that make us uncomfortable. Meaning we should say no to ideas that aren't bold enough. That aren't worth learning from. Rather than saying "no idea is a bad idea", tackle new ideas as a lawyer would with a legal brief - by taking both sides of the argument.
When things go well, I was the reason for it. When they don't, it was someone else who is at fault. Sound familiar? One person is rarely responsible for everything that happens. But if mistakes are allowed to go unchecked, meaningful discussions and lessons learned may be lost.
To create vulnerability in others so they want to take credit for failure, organizations have created drama-free zones. That doesn't mean that criticism and debate are not allowed, but rather that we others navigate the criticism. That we help others debate in a healthy manner. And we ask and receive for feedback in more constructive ways to ensure lessons are learned.
Failure only becomes something positive when you take the lessons and turn them into action. Organizations who bend but don't break during times of failure are able to face uncertainty and complexity in healthy ways. And it isn't because they have all the answers - but that they know they don’t have all the answers.
And yes; my son made it down the hill just fine.
I was the one who fell twice.