Tip #790: Make It Acceptable to Fail

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” Winston Churchill

Some failure can be fatal. The 2003 explosion of the Columbia space shuttle killed seven astronauts. The tragedy could have been avoided if the NASA managers had listened to the engineers.  The engineers knew how serious it was to have a piece of foam break off the left side of the shuttle at launch. The NASA managers just didn’t want to acknowledge there was anything wrong.

When employees feel they can’t speak up about mistakes and failures for fear of being blamed, and when managers keep their heads in the sand rather than acknowledge something is wrong, bad things can happen.

According to Amy C. Edmondson in her article “Strategies for Learning from Failure,” not all failures are equal and not all are bad. She lists nine possible reasons for failure that fall into three broad categories: preventable, complexity-related and intelligent.

Preventable mistakes are bad but can be remedied through training and support. These mistakes include:

  1. Deviance: an individual chooses to violate a prescribed process or practice.
  2. Inattention: an individual inadvertently deviates from specifications.
  3. Lack of ability: an individual doesn’t have the skills, conditions or training to execute a job.

(The Columbia disaster was a preventable failure: the NASA culture created a condition where the engineers could not execute the job that needed to be done.)

Complexity-related mistakes are neither good nor bad because they are unavoidable due to the uncertainty inherent in the situation. These mistakes include:

  1. Process inadequacy: a competent individual adheres to a prescribed but faulty or incomplete process.
  2. Task challenge: an individual faces a task too difficult to be executed reliably every time.
  3. Process complexity: a process composed of many elements breaks down when it encounters novel interactions.
  4. Uncertainty: a lack of clarity about future events causes people to take seemingly reasonable actions that produce undesired results.

Intelligent mistakes are intentional and good because the actions that caused them are seeking new knowledge to benefit the organization. These mistakes include:

  1. Hypothesis testing: an experiment conducted to prove that an idea or a design will succeed fails.
  2. Exploratory testing: an experiment conducted to expand knowledge and investigate a possibility leads to an undesired result.

In all instances of failure, the best response is to analyze the situation to find the root causes and address them as quickly as possible, without assigning fault or blame. This is easier said than done, because we have been taught that all mistakes are bad.

Ms. Edmondson believes that:

Only leaders can create and reinforce a culture that counteracts the blame game and makes people feel both comfortable with and responsible for surfacing and learning from failures. They should insist that their organizations develop a clear understanding of what happened- not of ‘who did it’- when things go wrong. This requires consistently reporting failures, small and large; systematically analyzing them; and proactively searching for opportunities to experiment.”

Leaders can create a psychologically safe environment so people feel comfortable reporting failures and learning from them by following five key steps:

  1. Frame the work accurately so people have a shared understanding of the kinds of failures that can be expected to occur in a given work context and why openness and collaboration are important for surfacing and learning from them.
  2. Embrace messengers who come forward with bad news, questions, concerns or mistakes and reward them. Implement “blameless reporting.”
  3. Acknowledge limits by being open about what you don’t know, mistakes you’ve made and what you can’t get done alone. This will encourage others to do the same.
  4. Invite participation by asking for observations and ideas and creating opportunities for people to detect and analyze failures and promote intelligent experiments. This will help to defuse resistance and defensiveness.
  5. Set boundaries and hold people accountable. Surprisingly, “people
    feel psychologically safer when leaders are clear about what acts are blameworthy. And there must be consequences. But if someone is punished or fired, tell those directly and indirectly affected what happened and why it warranted blame

Is it safe for people to report mistakes in your organization without being blamed? Do your managers acknowledge mistakes, analyze them to understand what happened, and plan how to prevent them from happening again?

May your learning be sweet.


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