Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Failure is a Ghost Story

Failure and ghosts have a lot in common.

People are terrified of both.

Neither exist.

I have worked with so many organisations that have a cultural fear of failure. Generations of managers believe that missing a target, or losing a deal, or moving a deadline is the end of the world. Failure.

Fear of failure kills innovation, and lack of innovation kills companies. Not competition. Not economy. Not consumer behaviour. Not regulation. Lack of innovation is what kills companies. From small local businesses to global corporations.

When a manager is afraid to fail, he or she will discourage risk. They won't do this overtly - in public, they will say that they support and encourage risk. Their fears manifest in far more subtle ways.

Managers who are afraid to fail will ask their teams to come up with 'good ideas'. Not ideas.

Managers who are afraid to fail will critique those ideas and ask, "But what do we know will work?

Managers who are afraid to work draw attention to people who play safe, who follow the rules.

Managers who are afraid to fail ask "What did you achieve?" instead of "What did you learn?"

Why do these attitudes kill innovation?

If we already know that an idea is good before we test it, we're playing safe. We know what worked in the past, and we do that again, and again, and again.

If we focus on successful results, we play safe because we emphasise and reward predictable results. The only way that you can be certain of what is going to happen is if you do what you've done a hundred times before, and you do what you know will succeed. You play safe. In reality, this doesn't guarantee success, it just makes you feel safer. When your team want to try something new, unproven, that's terrifying. "What if it doesn't work?" "Just do what we know."

Failure is a ghost because it only exists in our imagination, and yet both failure and ghosts can seem very real. Failure is simply a comparison to a judgement.

You can fail an exam. In an exam, you know the subject, you have a fair idea of what questions will be asked, you know the passing grade. If you fail to reach the passing grade, what do you do? You either forget about it, because it's not important to you, or you take the exam again. Better prepared, you achieve a higher grade.

We put a lot of pressure on our children to 'get good grades' because better grades are a gateway to better jobs. If they fail, they can try again. And each time, they learn more.

We can only achieve the result of fail or pass after the event. We can only fail when we stop.

Failing - or succeeding - is an arbitrary judgement, a comparison made by someone else, to someone else's benchmark. When you fail an exam, or you fail to bake the cake you wanted, or you fail to score a goal, or you fail to catch a train, or you fail to finish your coffee, what do you do? Do you stop? Do you give up? No, you figure out what happened, you learn, and you keep going.

As a leader, you can create a language of failure in your team or organisation, simply by talking about success. When you focus on and reward success, you implicitly discourage failure. Reward doesn't mean a financial bonus, it simply means that you ask "What did you win?" instead of "What did you learn?" Just by implying what is important to you, you will create a culture where failure is feared, risk is avoided, innovation is killed and your days are numbered.

As a leader, you can just as easily create a language of learning, growth and innovation.