One of the hallmarks of progressive leadership is a willingness to take calculated risks. Many people are afraid to take risks because of the potential for failure. However, this fear stems from a basic misunderstanding of the relationship between innovation and failure.
When leaders view failure as something to be avoided at all costs, they will never push outside the box and redefine or even discover an industry. Leaders who embrace failure as a learning opportunity become emboldened to forge new, unique paths in the business world.
The best leaders understand that people learn more from failure than from success. Failure teaches us the important lessons that lead us to success and help us maintain it.
Putting this understanding into practice is often easier said than done. After all, taking a risk feels like putting the company on the line. This can open people up to shame and embarrassment. In some organizations, failure comes with concerns about demotion.
To encourage employees to take calculated risk and destroy the stigma around failure, leaders can take several important steps to become role models themselves. Below are some key tips for fostering a failure-tolerant culture:
Create performance measurements that deemphasize outcome.
When performance measurements depend almost entirely on whether an idea was successful or not, employees will not feel safe taking risks. In reality, outcome is only a small fraction of performance and is not always directly tied to an individual’s personal abilities.
Rather than judging whether or not a project was successful, it may be more beneficial to look at the quality of the planning that went into its ultimate execution. Additionally, leaders may also want to perform ongoing analysis on the communication that supported the effort.
If an employee truly handled a project well, yet it was still a failure, then the outcome may speak more to outside circumstances than the abilities of the employee. By looking at the performance rather than the outcome, leaders encourage their employees to look outside the box and try something truly innovative – even if it has a chance of failing.
Embrace failure publicly.
Leaders need to model how to deal with failure. If they publicly talk about their own failures, they show that the organization values that aspect of the process.
Some leaders feel that admitting to failures will undermine their authority when, in fact, it builds trust between employees and leaders. It can also create a culture of honesty and openness.
When embracing failures, it is not enough to admit to one’s shortcomings. Rather, leaders need to show exactly what was learned as a result of the failure and how things will change in the future as a result.
When employees see leaders conduct this type of analysis, they are encouraged to look at their own failures critically and learn from them – rather than trying to hide them for fear of judgment.
Encourage employees to work collaboratively.
When numerous people contribute to a single project, they can share in its eventual success. Alternatively, if a project fails, they can collaboratively determine what went wrong as well as identify what needs to change going forward.
A group setting helps ensure that no one employee bears the brunt of the blame for failure, or feels ashamed as the result of it. When the whole group accepts responsibility, everyone is on even ground.
If one or two members do start to feel negatively about their performance, other members of the group can uplift them. Methods for doing so include pointing to important insights gained as the result of participating in the project.
Set aside time for experimentation.
Business leaders at some of today’s top companies have begun setting aside a certain amount of time, perhaps one day a week, for experimentation. During this time, employees can feel free to tackle something completely new without having any expectations for results.
Alternatively, they can look at past failed projects and evaluate them for potential solutions. Since the expectation of failure is built into experimentation, employees feel free to try some very creative solutions that could drive innovation at the company.
By doing so, employees can learn a great deal that may influence future projects. As with all experiments, it is important to emphasize the need for post-experiment analysis. During this time, individuals can look at what went wrong, what went right, and what questions are left to be answered.
Have teams share their results.
Whether a project goes well or fails, it is important that the people behind it share their findings with the entire company. This sharing could occur during company-wide meetings or via memos that are published and distributed between departments.
While failure is not something that should be looked down on, it is a waste of time to fail for the same reason twice. Strategies are not always interchangeable between departments. However, often the lessons that one team learned can influence how another team approaches its own projects.
In addition to helping disseminate the lessons learned by failure or success, this sort of sharing also normalizes failure. When teams in one department see that employees in several other departments have also struggled, they realize that it is not a source of shame.