A long, long time ago, I thought I was invincible. A typical teenager! Do you know someone like this?
I was eighteen years old and on my third year as a chemical engineering student in a selective university. My grades were always better than most so I was relaxed about passing my exams. After all I was already among the best in the country.
Exam week was coming but I had enough of studying. So when my friends came along and told me they were going to a far-flung location to do ‘mission’ work, I was intrigued. It sounded like an adventure. And I related to the ‘mission’ part, helping local residents improve their community. Why not? So off I went that weekend to join them.
We came back on Sunday afternoon. I was bone-tired.
You can predict what happened. Even on my best subjects, my grades dipped. And disaster struck. I failed one of them!
Failure. The unthinkable happened. Embarrassed, to say the least. Deflated that I let others down. Angry that I let it happen. That was enough to wake me up from my complacency. I also developed an intense dislike for missing my own goals.
Fail Fast. Recover Quickly. Learn Well.
That early brush with failure transformed my attitude. I set my goals higher. I developed laser-like focus during the last years in university. I changed from a ‘good enough’ student to an exemplary one and the results came with it. I graduated with honours and went on to be among the best in the year’s chemical engineering licensing exams.
That early failure was nothing compared to later disappointments in life and at work, but recovering fast, adapting, and adopting new ideas and approaches have become second nature to me.
As a young process engineer in San Rafael, California, I designed and set-up the first assembly process for a number of surface mount devices in our division. The route to the successful pilot after only four months, and the first mass production line shortly after, was littered with failed experiments. The failed experiments paved the road to success!
How can we test our creativity and ability to develop solutions to problems if we have not failed?
Thomas Edison once said, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”
Innovation And Failure
My attitude to failure has changed. Instead of focusing on the failure, I get energised about finding better ways to solve the problem.
From being a catalyst to prove I can do better, I now see failure as a natural ingredient for creativity, innovation and success. That means, being great at solving complex and ‘wicked’ problems and fast at recovering from setbacks.
“If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.” ~ Thomas J Watson, the founder of IBM
In Moonshots, anyone? I wrote about Astro Teller, Head of Google X, who also said that, “Being afraid to fail is almost a guarantee of the glass ceiling of what can be achieved.”
In July last year, Gail Kelly, then CEO of the Westpac Group, challenged attendees at a networking lunch: “How are you going to learn and how are you going to innovate unless you fail? You need to fail fast, quickly and then get up and off you go again.”
The Leadership Challenge
In forming and establishing teams from one business transformation challenge to another, I have learned that #HowILead teams through failure is as much an ingredient of success as inspiring and motivating people, even with robust operating models and governance mechanisms to assure business outcomes.
All Business Transformations are profound, fundamental changes. Many situations that arise from these initiatives carry threads of ambiguity and unpredictability.
Here are challenging questions for leaders, especially business transformation leaders.
- Do you foster trust so that people feel safe innovating (within risk management parameters) and failing and innovating again, especially in areas where rapid innovation is a must?
- Do you model courage so others can be fearless in coming up with new approaches, challenging the status quo, re-framing problems in a different way?
- How do you value truth, especially bad news delivered in a timely way?
- Do you celebrate success with the associated failures ‘in the frame’?
- How do you rate performance when innovation (therefore, failure with it) is key to success?
Innovate, fail, innovate again … and do it fast! This often saves the team and the organisation from the problem-solving paralysis that can set when complex and ‘wicked’ problems come one after another.
What would you do differently as a leader to remove the fear of failure in your organization?
This is an updated version of my blog post “When Failure Is Good”.