Why Failure?

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Ashley Good

“Failure is…any situation that teaches you a better way of doing something. Basically, anything you can learn from. For me, every failure has the potential to be a force for good.”

Let’s start simple. Why “failure?”

I have been asked this question almost daily since I started Fail Forward three years ago.

Clients: “Can’t we use something more positive? What about ‘lessons learned’ or ‘best practices’?”

Partners: “Shouldn’t we provide a range of word options that would be more widely palatable?”

My Mom: “But honey, doesn’t that make you a full-time failure?” (Okay, this one was a joke – my mom is awesome like that).

But really, why not use another word less steeped in emotions like shame or regret? My answer to all who are thinking along these lines is: you are right.

Failure is more than a tough word. It is emotive and physical: we have all felt the pain associated with it and perhaps wish we could forget or undo it. We work to delay that inevitable moment when it shows up again. But all of that is precisely the reason I continue to use the word “failure,” over many other less powerful options.

While the terms ‘lessons learned’ or ‘best practices’ have existed for years, we are still unable to speak openly, or have the honest conversations we need to have, about what is working and what is not. If we want to talk about our failures, we should talk about our failures – not our “achievement deficits” or other concepts that give space to skirt around what is actually important.

Moreover, I have an increasingly supported suspicion that euphemizing the experience of failure actually strengthens our fear of it, giving it a taboo status. Watered down terms might actually discourage us from getting to the conversations on risk-taking and innovation that we seek.

We need to pull up our pants and learn how to interact with failure more productively. Not by skirting around it or renaming it, but by acknowledging it, even appreciating what it can teach us, so we can keep moving forward.

When everyone speaks openly about failures, we can implicitly say: “If you have no failure to discuss, you are not being honest or you are not being innovative.” It is a paradigm shift. An acceptance of failure genuinely turns the concept of performance on its head: you are not under-performing if you fail; you are under-performing if you do not admit failure, because when we admit failure, we all learn from it.

This process of admitting and productively interacting with failure starts with the practice of intelligent failure.

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Intelligent failure is the intentional practice of productively reacting to failure. Since we are seldom taught how to fail, our instinctive reactions are usually defensive, dysfunctional, and generally do not serve us very well. The practice of intelligent failure involves building both the skills and a culture – for yourself or for your community – that can start turning those reactions around.

Personally and organizationally, this practice might mean reacting with appreciation for and curiosity about what was (or can be) learned when we, or those around us, fail.

It might involve creating a safe place where innovation and smart risk-taking are rewarded. It could also be communicating failures to others in a way that focuses on the learning opportunities.

Here are some easy practices from our guide, What We’ve Learned About Communicating Failure:

  1. Create a safe space for dialogue. Take the time to ask yourself and others why they do, or do not, feel safe discussing failures in your current context and explicitly design with the feedback you get. Do this each time.
  2. Suspend assumptions. Set ground rules that recognize when you or others share what they believe to be true: opinions need to be respected and different perspectives are relevant, useful, and valid.
  3. Internalize the locus of responsibility. Make it a ground rule to, or assign someone to, with care and respect, watch out for the behaviour of blaming factors you could not control. If you are practicing this alone, push for the courage to look at what you could have done. In a group, acknowledge that everyone has agency and everyone plays a part – no matter how small.
  4. Speak to the aspects of failure to which you contributed. This will be difficult – it goes against our natural confirmation bias – but you must watch blaming others to the best of your ability. You should only ever recognize the failure of another person if you genuinely wish to do so for their benefit and focus on how changes of behaviour could have created a different outcome.
  5. Target root causes. For example, instead of staying at the level of, “I made the wrong decision, which caused the failure,” take the time to ask why that decision was made. This looks more like, “I made this assumption based on these interactions or these experiences, but failed to notice this crucial piece for this reason which, in turn, caused me to make a decision that resulted in the failure.”

Intelligent failure is not about celebrating failure or even embracing it. Failure is not great. But it is also largely inevitable. Considering it is going to happen, we must transform our approach to failure. How could you come to understand failure in a more productive way?

Eddie Obeng talks about how the pace of change in today’s world has surpassed our ability to learn or have the knowledge needed to solve our most important challenges. We have to create space to experiment, figure out what works, and when something does not work, we need to learn and adapt as a result.  The ability to fail intelligently, whether personally or organizationally, empowers innovation and creativity and is an essential skill for coping with the increasingly complex challenges of our contemporary world.

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To learn more about the practice of intelligent failure, I invite you to attend the Fail Forward 2014 Conference, taking place on July 9th at MaRS Discovery District. Early Bird discounts are available for the first fifty registrants.

See also: Social Enterprise Spotlight on Fail Forward, an in-depth interview with Ashley Good.

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Ashley Good About Ashley Good

Ashley Good is the CEO and Founder of Fail Forward, supporting organizations to learn, innovate and build resilience.

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