Failing forward on the “Fail Forwards”

I posted earlier on my site about competitive advantage today being defined by the agility of an organization and the continuous speed with which is brings new value to the market. If you accept some of those arguments, then perhaps you will also accept that the new speed, iteration and “intrapreneurial” culture also brings the occasional “whoopsie” into the fray.

Most leaders I know would suggest that the organizations we lead are completely receptive to failure and that as leaders, we all support the tremendous learning and growth that comes from making mistakes. Sure we do 😂. If I hear one more musing about how you “miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” as encouragement for people to try new things, I might throw up in my mouth, if just a bit. I only say that because those kinds of things are so very easy to say, while at the same time, the experience that our employees have when failure actually occurs is not exactly as encouraging.

There has been much written about how organizations should respond to failure, harvest all the learnings, share those broadly and then go on to achieve unbelievable results as a result of the failure. Academics have long hypothesized about how the specific actions, body language, spoken/unspoken responses and behaviour of leaders all have a disproportionate and lasting affect on the those experiencing setbacks at work. Both positively and negatively. I have actually seen articles which would suggest that those initial, visible responses will have the single biggest impact on how these sorts of failures are digested by organizations and whether or not organizations truly learn and grow as a result.

That puts a lot of pressure on leaders and in particular on their own level of self awareness and self control. We all want things to work out perfectly and to succeed on things that matter. When they don’t workout that way, being in control of your emotions all the time is a hard thing to ask of anyone. For CEO’s, there is always more visibility and opinion on the choices you make and the consequence of choices. For me, when I make a mistake, I know there are 1,000 opinions on what I could have done differently. I offer that not to ask for any sympathy – I love my job and all that it brings. I offer it to demonstrate how hard it is to ask leaders to be perfect when it comes to admitting failure and really looking deeply for the lesson that exists within. It’s hard enough to admit defeat in a 1 on 1 conversation, it is infinitely harder for leaders to admit mistakes to the masses of people that count on them everyday. For that reason alone, it’s good to practice this level of transparency early in your leadership journey and graduate to admitting failure in progressively larger settings. You can get good at it, trust me, I have tried. Sometimes, I have done it well and other times, not so much 🤔.

Let me give you some real life examples

Organizational Design – Early in our journey to create more creativity and innovation in my current role, I had done lots of research on “ambidextrous organizational design“. I had grand ideas and made what was, at the time, very drastic organizational changes. The changes were very hard for the organization to digest. Our Teams could not connect “the why”, struggled with implementing the changes and to be candid, the changes were initially a bit of a disaster. I struggled with a long time to admit my failure in communicating, in researching and in listening better to the feedback I received at the time. Over the four years since then, we have slowly incorporated the learnings and are getting better at becoming more ambidextrous, but a more open admission of the failure at the time, I’m convinced, would have helped immensely. Missed opportunity for sure. #FacePalm.

The Fail Forward Awards – We revamped some of our internal recognition programs in the last few years and tried very hard to use this as an opportunity to drive home the cultural changes we wanted to make around creativity, innovation and accepting failure. We introduced a new awards category to our revamped programs that celebrated failures and importantly, incorporating the learnings from those missteps.  We did a fantastic job of almost all of this work – except one thing.  We had designed the program to allow you to nominate others in the organization for their failures.  Read that last sentence again.  OMG, yeah….oops. We quickly learned that was not the way to encourage people to open up publicly about failure and how they learned, grew and shared those learnings. We discovered the design flaw early, laughed at ourselves and the irony around failing forward on the “Fair Forward Award” design. Today, that program is one of the most hotly contested awards at our super cool, annual awards program and it is a real tangible way in which we are living our values as a learning organization. Quick recognition, transparent admission of an oversight, then a pivot to incorporate much better ways for people to share their own stories of setback, learning and growth and ta-dah, works much better. Easy right?!?

The better you get at demonstrating the vulnerability around your own imperfection / fears and the more courage you will build to allow you to share the learnings that come from mistakes. When people within the organization see leaders doing that regularly, it becomes so much easier for them to do it too. It also becomes less emotionally exhausting to lead others when you can leave your “I have to be perfect” backpack at home and just be yourself.

Inherently, people want to work for other humans – warts, flaws and all.  The sooner we act more human and let go of perfection, the easier it is for others to choose to follow.

Quick update from a reader of the blog – Jill let me know there was a “Museum of Failure” showcasing failed ideas but created as a way for all of us to learn from these whoopsies. Check it out!

2 replies
  1. Colter
    Colter says:

    Loved reading this, well done! As an entrepreneur, one of my first learnings was that I needed to accept failure and use it to grow. Didn’t learn this because I wanted to, learned it because I had to for my personal wellbeing… LOL. I found it really easy to accept my failures as growing opportunities, but always found it much harder to do the same for my employees. I tried, I got better at it, but I never mastered it (not even close). I admire those who are able to do this well with the people they lead and it’s a skill I want to continue to improve on. Thanks again for the great read, keep it up!

    • Eric Dillon
      Eric Dillon says:

      Thanks for the feedback Colter. You’re so right that it is hard and takes lots of practice! What a great reason to start early and remember the goal is not to be perfect, just better at it than we were today.


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