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To hell with failure!

To hell with failure!

Neither fearing nor fetishizing failure is helping. There is a better way.

Maurice Lefebvre
Maurice Lefebvre

Yesterday, I got into a vigorous discussion with other coaches about failure in a workplace context.

These days, there are two main views on failure: “I don’t pay you to fail” boss-centric point of view, and the “failure is learning” employee-centric point of view. I know, I know, this is a gross simplification. Bear with me.

The fact is, I don’t agree with either. In addition to being a coach, I have been an entrepreneur for most of my life. I am no stranger to failure. I could be arguing on both sides of this discussion, but I won’t because both are counter-productive.

“I don’t pay you to fail” leads to mediocrity and inertia

At some point in our careers, we all met a boss who’s doesn’t want failure. This position implies that bad things will befall on whoever dare fail.

People will fear you

Some might still believe this is a good thing, but they are way off the mark. When people fear you, they rarely want to risk ingratiating themselves to you. They just want to keep their heads down and not being singled out for any reason. You will end up having to name “volunteers” when you need something, and you will deal with a lot of turnover. And if I were you, I wouldn’t ask anyone to make your coffee or handle your food for you.

People will stop trying things.

Innovation is the lifeblood of businesses. Not just innovation in products and services, but in the internal processes too. If your employees stop trying stuff, the best you can hope for is that your company won’t change. The world will, though, so you will be condemning yourself to irrelevance. That is, if the entropy from inadequate or inefficient processes doesn’t sink the company first.

People will execute orders to the letter, even if they know it won’t work, so they can pass the blame back on whoever made the request.

Kiss accountability goodbye. You will turn your workforce into poorly programmed robots, no matter how awesome employees they could be. Don’t bother hiring so-called “superstars”: your policy on failure will force them in the same position as everyone else before long.

People will disengage and will do the bare minimum to avoid being fired.

When people stop trying, their job just becomes an annoying thing to do to get a salary. There is no motivation anymore, no joy, no interest in seeing your company succeed. If you’re lucky, they will not actively work to make you fail. And don’t be shocked that they aren’t grateful for the job: bad, meaningless positions are everywhere and easy to get.

Ruling through fear with an “I don’t pay you to fail” attitude doesn’t make you a tough and strong leader. At best, it makes you sound like a Bond villain, but most of the time, you’ll seem closer to a Saturday morning cartoon villain. In any case, both types end up with their butts kicked.

“Failure is learning” can quickly become a costly way to learn.

Coaches sing the praises of failure, and employees are all for it. Many “good” bosses embrace it, too, as do many entrepreneurs who have to face it all too often. Failure is how we learn, so we should fail fast and often.

Learning is good, I’ll grant that. A culture that doesn’t fear failure is also often much better for psychological safety and personal development. I fully agree with a culture that is tolerant of the occasional failure. Failure happens. It’s unavoidable. Let’s not make a big deal out of it and move on. But...

Failure, especially in a culture accepting of failure, is an inefficient tool for learning.

We learn from the struggle and exploration, not the end result. Failure is an end-result. While not a bad thing in itself, it is an undesirable one, a costly one, and one that relies on luck to teach you the right practical thing. Life-lessons are easy to extract from failure, but so are they from successes too. Practical lessons are best learned from the way we tackle challenges.

A culture of “positive outcome failures” will over time exacerbate the failure part and diminish the outcome part.

My problem is with a culture that celebrates failure. Failure becomes a good and desirable thing. Because of learning! As I said, I don’t believe failure is inherently bad, and it can have positive outcomes, but we mostly learn from challenges and the experiments to overcome these challenges. If failure becomes something positive in itself, you end up stopping fighting against it. You end up stopping learning valuable lessons from it. It’s just the usual routine.

Failure is expensive, limiting your capacity to explore and innovate more.

Take that from someone who runs his own experiments on just about any new way of working out of his own pocket: failures cost A LOT of money, time, and resources. “Failure is learning” is all fine and dandy as long as you are not the one caught paying, but rest assured that someone will be left with the check. TANSTAAFL! (“There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” for the younger readers). Of course, you can fail fast to limit the costs associated with failure. You can also crash your car and survive: it doesn’t mean it’s a desirable thing even if you’ll learn to avoid trees while driving.

So, if you like your job or your company, don’t be so quick to embrace failure as something positive. It’s a bit like digging straight down: you will discover a lot of nifty stuff, but at some point, you will realize that the hole is quite deep and that you can’t get out anymore.

But in any case, failure isn’t about failure: it’s about what we can learn from it. But putting the focus squarely on that learning, another path appears.

“Deliberate experiments,” or how to make failure irrelevant to the discussion.

Either refusing or embracing failure is like shooting yourself in the foot. In fact, putting the spotlight on failure is where we err. “Failure” in itself is just an end-state. It’s the learning and the positive outcomes we want, not the failure. So let’s focus on those.

We learn best from being challenged when we have the attitude and support to explore ways to overcome and even benefit from the situation. Enter the culture of deliberate experiments.

In a deliberate experiment, you have a mission: test a hypothesis or explore ways to overcome a challenge. To be successful, you need to try something while fully aware of the possible outcomes (positive or negative). You also need to carefully manage your investment in time/effort/resources so that the expected outcomes exceed the costs. A deliberate experiment is a bet, yes, but a careful one. This might sound familiar if you are using Lean Startup or have an antifragile mindset, as both have been advocating the same thing for years.

The best deliberate experiments are focused, cheap, quick, and revealing. Limit their cost to the minimum, limit their duration to a few hours to a few days, and keep an open mind for unexpected results. No matter what happens, you never risk much, and you have a lot to gain.

A successful deliberate experiment will propel you forward. It will teach you some essential and relevant information and lessen the risks for more substantial investments. The only way to fail at such an experiment is to waste the investment and learn nothing.

A culture of deliberate experiments is good for people

It allows people to use their expertise and experience in exciting ways, which is stimulating and a great way to refine and grow that expertise. It’s also quite useful to safely train people on new skills and techniques concretely and practically through pairing.

Failure becomes a small thing that can be fixed, keeping the idea that it is still undesirable while also fostering an environment of accountability: try to avoid outright failure, but if you can’t, help fix the mess.

Having employees who feel safe and who have plenty of opportunities to grow is an excellent thing as they will always bring more to their employer. They will be happier, as well as more engaged and motivated.

Now, some of you might ask, “But what if they become amazing and they leave?” I could answer with the classic “But what if they stay mediocre and they stay?” but I’ll do you one better: Why would they want to leave a place where they are appreciated, where they can shine and grow their expertise? Even better: where can they go and still get all of that? Of course, some turnover is unavoidable, but a savvy boss can turn even that into a new opportunity.

A culture of deliberate experiments is good for the company

What happens when you have a bunch of employees who enjoy trying new stuff and explore responsibly? You have a culture of high and constant innovation. One that welcomes new challenges and that won’t be satisfied by mediocrity. One that will always be naturally responsible for productivity, cost-effectiveness, and continuous improvement. All that as a regular part of work.

A culture of deliberate experiments is good for leaders

By creating and supporting a system that continuously explores new ways to do things, most of the usual efforts to improve outcomes, reduce costs, overcome challenges and adapt to new realities will be made through the normal flow of work. This means that the leader now can concentrate on giving their people some clear missions based on where the company wants to go and give them what they need to succeed. Less work, more impact.

A culture of deliberate experiments is good for the world

Our world is a mess. One caused by way too many people who were beaten down into disengagement, allowing abusers to run free and enrich themselves at the expense of everyone else.

By adding groups of curious, engaged, motivated, and highly skilled people, we will find new and innovative ways to make the world a better place. How can I be so sure of that? Because deep down, the non-psychopaths amongst us want to be a positive force on their environment. They feel pride when they bring happiness to others, when they solve difficult challenges and when they create something greater than themselves.

Don’t you think our world needs a bit more of that?

So here we are. A culture of deliberate experiment makes the whole discussion about failure a moot point. Focus on exploring through experiments, and you will get benefits covering the expenses most of the time. The occasional failure will be irrelevant to the bottom line, just salvage whatever you can from it and move on.

So, what do you think?