I have been reading a lot about failure recently, particularly with people quoting Elon Musk's statement, "if you're not failing enough, you're not innovating enough". Many people seem to look at this quote and are quick to agree. They think the key is to celebrate the failure. Some have even added this as a highlight in team meetings.
However I'd like to raise a red flag of caution and pose a slightly different approach. Failure has a place in our process as a feedback mechanism and as a learning experience, but not as a goal. Yes, innovation involves risk. Yes, we have to challenge the status quo to get beyond business as usual. We understand that we must break some eggs to make an omelet. But the focus should be on the omelet, not the broken eggs!
Practice makes permanent. Good practice makes perfect!
When we celebrate failure, we can reinforce a behavior that can easily become a habit - and not a good one. It's one thing to experiment, innovate and try something new, activities we usually associate with R&D, training, and pre-production work. But when we are in front of the customer, the goal is to get it right the first time. We should strive to do our best and accept nothing less.
There is something "painfully relatable" about watching others fail. It allows us to feel better about our own shortcomings and gives us permission to be less than perfect. Juxtaposed to a social media world that provides an edited and idealized version of someone's life, we seek authenticity and prefer a great come-back story. We want our heroes to overcome adversity, but without the zenith why would we rejoice in the nadir? After all, the victory tastes sweeter when it's hard-fought and earned.
The learning zone and the performance zone
As my friend Eduardo Briceño describes so eloquently in his TED Talk, there is a difference between the learning zone, where mistakes are expected (or even encouraged) and failure is part of the learning process, and the performance zone, where there is no room for error, and we are expected to execute flawlessly because failure can be costly.
Working with young student athletes, we focus on the learning zone during the training sessions. That's where we teach new skills and concepts. It's where we push boundaries to the point of failure, experiment, and encourage risk-taking. We provide a safe place to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. This is where the learning and exploration take place. For my business clients, it is the test kitchen trying new recipes or the pharmaceutical lab researching a new cure. It is the pre-production work of a software company pushing the limits of their new product before they go live.
When the time for our game arrives, we shift our focus to applying what we learned all week to the moment of truth. Now we are keeping score. Now we are in the performance zone and pursuing the win! This is the environment where we can apply the learning to get the results we want. And reflecting on how well we did, we can now return to the learning zone and make any improvements and adjustments to perform better the next time. The cycle of learning and applying is a continuous loop that can lead to higher performance and improved results.
Three steps to fail forward
Working with high performers, whether in the boardroom or on the soccer pitch, it's clear that successful individuals have a common mindset when it comes to failure:
- They own it!
- They learn from it!
- They let it go!
Own it. High performers don't blame others or look for excuses when things don't work out. They take personal accountability and accept 100% of their part of the miss. This also allows them to take full responsibility for what they did right. That way performance can be seen as a result of effective or ineffective actions and decisions. Something we can analyze and improve.
Learn from it. Armed with the facts of what worked and what didn't work, we can then explore how to do things better. We can learn from our mistakes and failures to improve our process, our decision-making, our speed, our systems, etc. Reflecting at the end of a project allows us to validate the right moves but also see the missed opportunities. After all, hindsight is 20/20, and with that clarity we can apply the learning to the next project or game.
Let it go. Agility is a prized competence in today's constantly changing environment. But it's hard to be agile when you carry around the weight of failures past. When we take the time to learn from mistakes, we can receive the full value of that experience. There is nothing more to be gained from carrying it around with us, so put it down and let it go.
Failure is not the opposite of success. It is a feedback mechanism that shows us what's not working. We can learn from it and improve. But if we continue to make the same mistake – doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result – isn't that the insanity that Einstein warned us about?
Mistakes happen, and they are part of the process. How we handle the setback is the difference. Do we learn from each and come back stronger, or just do the same thing again? A mistake repeated, is no longer a mistake. It's a choice!
Don't make failure the habit. Failure has its place in the creative process, in innovation, in our (re)design and improvement efforts. But its place is to tell us what's NOT working on the way to discovering what DOES work. It is a milestone and not the destination! And it should be recognized as such. So, don't celebrate the failure. Celebrate the learning!
"I never lose. I either win or learn." [Nelson Mandela]