Failure is human: it’s progress that matters

‘Epic Fail!’

The gleeful cries of game-play resonate down our hallway as I write in the kitchen. My children are enjoying whizzing round the track, racing each other on Mario Kart on the Wii. Failure and spectacular crashes are part of the game. They pick up and set off again quickly.

A little later, more tired, the sounds reveal frustration, anger and defeat. The next ‘failure’ has a much more destructive impact. The ‘stupid game’ is dumped, the computer accused of ‘cheating’.

There’s much concern currently that our younger generations are not resilient to failure, haven’t learned how to fail and learn from it. In contrast, our top entrepreneurs share their failures with pride, the wounds of battle that made them stronger. This idea isn’t new, as Thomas Edison once said,

I have not failed 10,000 times. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work. Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time. Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

It’s a pressing issue in business. The impact on company culture is high: people can be so crippled by fear of failure that they forget the nuances of ethics, making bad decisions or no decisions at all. Far from innovation, these are the businesses that languish in inertia.

Of course failure is normal, inevitable and there is no reality of perfection, constant success or winning every race.

Olympic athletes are coached not only to believe they can win, but also to use failure to do so. The British speedskater Elise Christie endured the heartbreak of three disqualifications at the Sochi Winter Games in 2014 with grace and dignity despite bewilderment at extreme refereeing and vicious social-media pillorying. Thank goodness for intense coaching from the squad’s sports psychologist. After rebounding and winning three gold medals at the world championships in Rotterdam, she said she just needed to, ‘stop dwelling on what happened, and look at how to change it. Less focus on the problem and more focus on the solution.’

But not everybody has such support or is so resilient.
How can companies encourage people beyond failure?
By reinforcing the flipside of failure: Progress.

The human spirit is designed to endure all kinds of crises and catastrophes. Yet we can’t bear to be stuck in a traffic jam. We can cope with grief, pain, terrible injuries – as long as we can see progress.

Progress is what employees need to hear from their companies and what they need to experience in their work.

Progress is reinforced partly in formal communication, putting facts and figures into context. Share disasters quickly and honestly.

Focus on what’s been learned of causes and outcomes NOT on blame; on prevention and improvement NOT condemnation and recrimination.

More important is the informal conversation with teams, and the attitude of managers.

Managers with a tendency to humiliate ignore signs of progress and report only what they see as failed targets. Amidst the pressures of daily work, this can undermine the achievement of tough performance goals.

Whereas managers who encourage progress give license to try new ideas, instilling confidence. Allowing room to fail means allowing room to succeed. The trick is to encourage progress within protective boundaries.

The Soviet engineer Peter Palchinsky knew this. Despite his end (sadly, shot for being too direct to the authorities about the management of ‘innovation’ and undermining Mother Russia…) his rules outlast him.

On the back of our loo door my husband (a disruptive innovator) has pinned up the three Palchinsky Principles:

  1. Seek out new ideas and try new things
  2. When trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable
  3. Seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along

Failure and progress are wrapped together: great guidance for any business. And simple inspiration for anybody trying something new.

So let’s focus on progress more than failure. Share the learning widely and you’ll see even more results even quicker – while keeping spirits up through difficult times.

And we’ll hear a fewer squeals of failure and more cheers of success.


[First published in CorpComms magazine.]