Whatever you are trying to achieve, making progress naturally includes making mistakes. So it’s important to celebrate ‘failure’, and reframe it as ‘learning’ and a healthy part of living a full life.
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Thomas A. Edison
This article builds on last month’s article How your mindset can enable or limit you.
“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”
Winston S. Churchill
Why it’s okay to fail
Here are a few reasons why it’s okay (and even good) to fail:
You can learn from failure
When something doesn’t go according to plan, you can learn from it and move on from there.
We are not born to fear failure. Children are full of curiosity and the desire to ‘have a go’. If something doesn’t work – whether they are building a tower of LEGO, a den in the garden, or solving puzzles – they just keep exploring, playing and testing.
It is the conditioning that children receive from adults that results in expectations and fears. The educational environment (particularly in the UK) is set up to cram students with information and test them, rather than exploring, embracing and valuing when things go wrong.
Failure provides a sense of freedom
Everyone experiences disappointment and failure during life, so embrace this as normal and natural, and free yourself up to have a go.
When you have failed once and learned from it, you develop resilience and can give yourself the freedom to push yourself further. For example, the multiple iterations that led to the Dyson vacuum cleaner becoming such a powerful and successful product.
Failure makes you stronger
So pick yourself up, dust yourself down and get back on with it!
You will live a fuller life
When you are not afraid of failure, you will discover more opportunities, build new relationships, and see more things, than if you live a ‘safe’ life.
“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”
Success feels better
If you have never experienced failure, you will never enjoy the full taste of success. When you have overcome challenges, success feels SO good!
In some cultures, people are expected to be modest and underplay their achievements. Do what is culturally right so you do not appear to be arrogant or blowing your own trumpet. Equally, do not be embarrassed to feel good about your achievements. Be proud of your successes, and make time to acknowledge and celebrate them.
“Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavour.”
When you reframe failure as learning, you are not driven by fear; but by possibility.
When you have a positive, enquiring, improvisational mindset, no idea is bad. Use the ‘yes and’ approach as a playful way of creating something, and you’ll see other people’s contributions as opportunities that are there to be built on.
For more on this, please see my article on Improvisation.
“Just because you fail once doesn’t mean you’re gonna fail at everything.”
Reasons for failure (& tips for leaders)
Here are my personal opinions based on what we can learn from companies that have failed (including those called “too big to fail”), and my experience of working with organisations and teams.
Lack of innovation
Some organisations and teams continue to churn out the same work, even though the environment is evolving and changing.
See my newsletter on Innovation
Lack of challenge
It’s dangerous to stick to established norms about how things get done, and what work is valued or not.
When this becomes part of the DNA of the organisation or team, its a bit like ‘group think’. It stifles creativity. People become institutionalised, and stop looking with a fresh pair of eyes. They often become so used to it, that they don’t even realise they are doing it. (See also “Lack of fresh blood” and “Lack of diversity” below.)
Encourage a culture within your organisation of regularly giving feedback to each other. Also, get feedback from your stakeholders. Build an external network of people who will challenge you. Get yourself a mentor – someone very different to you.
Lack of fresh blood
Established teams stagnate when they have no staff turnover for a while, or only embrace ‘yes’ people.
Embrace the ‘yes but’ people. Build in an external perspective from someone whose role is to bring fresh thinking and challenge norms.
Lack of diversity
When everyone in the team or organisation is similar, they will have a very narrow way of looking at problems.
When hiring, constantly think how you can get diversity. Recruit people with different personalities, styles and experience. Think how you, as a leader, can listen and suspend judgement to hear and build on different points of view. Explore even wacky or left-field suggestions – who knows where they could lead?
This links to my article on Handling diversity.
Losing touch with the customer
Make sure you talk regularly to your external customers and internal stakeholders, to understand what service they want from you and how.
Have a co-creative approach with your customers and stakeholders. Together, you can determine where to take risks. They will be more invested in making things work. Any failure is more likely to be seen as a learning opportunity, and you can learn and grow together.
Lack of differentiation
You need to be different from the competition – ideally, you’ll be the best in the world at whatever you do. This links to my article on Personal branding.
Identify what your customers are really after, and the unique value you bring as an individual, team or organisation.
Failing to communicate your value
Any team should articulate their value or purpose statement clearly and succinctly in a way that invites stakeholders to ask questions, engage in conversation, or explore possibilities.
Communicate your value in a compelling way that your customers understand.
Lack of leadership / In-fighting
Don’t allow your personal agenda or ego to get in the way. Constantly bring the conversation back to what you are trying to achieve as a team, and the benefit that brings the organisation. Everyone should be able to align at that level.
Continually work on your personal development and invest in your team so you build up your skills, and theirs. This also demonstrates an openness and certain degree of humility, which will encourage more dialogue and exploration and less competition within the team.
For more on this, see my article about the Role of the leader.
Lack of planning
Organisations are often very action and achievement-orientated, with a short-term focus. Take time out once or twice per year to do a stock take of your strategy, team performance/culture, and yourself.
Make sure you build in time to stop, think, plan, and then decide. Show the value of proper preparation through better decision making.
Failing to review completed projects
As a leader, how you phrase the discussion sets the tone. If something does go wrong, it’s important to examine it in a way that is not blaming or seeking a scapegoat, but seeking to learn from it.
Don’t ask: “How did we mess up?” Instead, try: “What went well?” Then: “How will we reshape this next time, as we continue to evolve?”
Once a project is completed, take time to celebrate what went well, capture the learning, and decide what you might do differently next time. Invest a higher proportion of the time learning from what went well (unless of course it was a major disaster, in which case that would lose credibility if you tried to gloss over it).
See my newsletter on Appreciative Inquiry.
Feeling frustrated when progress seems slow
There will come a time in any team – particularly when you are setting a new direction – when ideas dry up or you get stuck. It may feel messy, or look like an insurmountable problem. Some people get frustrated because they want closure quickly. Things are not moving fast enough or in a linear fashion.
When I am facilitating teams, I find this is a common phase they go through.
When you are creating the future, you might have a period when it looks as though you are not getting anywhere. At this point, take a break and come back to it.
Also, set expectations and give reassurance at the start. For example, say: “At some point, you might feel a bit lost. This is a natural part of the process. Just trust that someone will eventually say something that sparks the team to get going again.”
I hope you have found this a useful way of looking at ‘failure’ in a fresh light – remember, it is only a failure if we don’t learn from it. I wish you lots of luck and learning, and a more relaxed frame of mind!
Next month: Does your desire to achieve put you at risk of burnout?
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