How to approach failure intelligently

Let’s all just get on board with failure, shall we?

We’ve talked about it before — as leaders, we often feel a pressure to be flawless. To get it right the first time and, if we do have flaws, to cover them as best we can.

However, that’s not only a nearly impossible ideal, it’s not serving our own development or our team’s.

Failure is GOOD. It means you’re trying new things, you’re testing, you’re optimizing and you’re growing.

We learn lessons. We try, we fail, we get up, we try again. We act, measure, evaluate, repeat. We iterate.

Whether is a new communication approach with your team, a new project or technology, or a new format for meetings – you can’t improve anything without trial and error.

Once we accept that failing is not only a part of our journey but IMPERATIVE to success, it might change our thinking, it might make us more courageous and, from what I’ve seen with some of our clients, it might lead to much greater success!  Oh, the irony.

In other words, the faster we fail, the faster we get back up and make something or do something even better.

So, if all that’s true how can we fail fast and fail intelligently to bounce back as fast and smart as possible?

Shift your perspective about failure

Instead of avoiding failure like the plague, shift the narrative in your mind.

When you try something new that doesn’t quite work out, instead of seeing it as a failed attempt, consider it, instead, an iteration.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
– Thomas A. Edison

An iteration is a point closer to success than the previous attempt. That is a very different than starting from scratch. A failure doesn’t mean you’re starting from scratch, a failure means you’re starting again with so much more knowledge now, than the last time.

Shift your perspective to embrace iterations.

Be transparent

Get your team, and your boss, on board with your attempts to improve. Let them know you’re trying something new and why. Share the lessons and be open with your rationale.

This not only sets you up for the next step to seek input but it also fosters a culture of openness and the lessons can be learned across your team.  You don’t want to be the only one learning from a failure.

Another way to ensure transparency is to build a step into your communications protocol that keeps people in the loop when tackling new projects. This ensure that others have access to the actions you’re taking and what’s working and what isn’t so that they can learn as you go.

Perhaps it’s as simple as a weekly project update that includes one win and one challenge from the project.

Seek Input

Providing transparency is an awesome first step to involving your team in intelligent failure but seeking input is equally as important. This may result in even faster, smarter lessons and iterations if you can leverage the experience and expertise on your team.  It’s the old adage, “two minds are better than one.”

Letting people know what you’re trying and what is working and what isn’t is one thing but seeking input may allow insight that you may not otherwise be able to tap into. Sometimes those with a little distance from a project may see things in a different way.

As well, input allows people to feel involved and invested. Win-win!

Measure your trials

One key to failing intelligently, is to make notes of what worked and what didn’t. Record the lesson(s) learned so they stick with you and can easily be shared. Make sure you have systems in place to capture all your hard work, to measure it, so that you can evaluate it objectively. You’ll make smarter iterations.

Try a one-page project summary document with the key goals, strategies, and actions and include space to reflect on what did or didn’t work and why.

Coach’s Questions:

What systems will you put in place to capture the lessons from your iteration? What have you been putting off because of a fear of failure?