Thursday, February 20, 2014

One Does Not Simply "Fail Fast and Fail Often"

Fail fast, fail often is the cliché. You can find scores of columns about the value of failure, and about how innovation depends upon it. Companies need to be resilient, build carefully-balanced portfolios, "fail strategically," and so on. These articles speak of failure as a mere stepping stone to success, as if failure were of trivial cost and significance, especially in light of the big picture. People and companies are berated for their fear of failure, their risk-aversion, and their short-sightedness (notably this derision comes from people who will not have to bear the costs and consequences of others failing!).

But, if all of those articles are correct, then why are companies not listening?

Because failure is real.

Failure has real costs, real consequences, and real pains that are palpable to both the organization and the people within it. Failure hurts, and until we acknowledge that part, the advice and platitudes will fall on ears deafened by the hot sting of defeat.

In today's milieu, one of instant results, high competition, flooded markets, and uncertain times, people are all too aware that one misstep can mean disaster. CEO's fear that one mistake can cause their company to go down, and in a world where competitors are a dime a dozen, they may be correct. Employees fear that even an honest mistake can get them fired, and in a down economy with high unemployment, termination becomes a scary reality that can lead to economic ruin. Managers fear that being too honest will get them reported to HR, disciplined, and terminated, and they have the scars to prove it.

Worse yet, each of these missteps can place a warding mark on the foreheads of those who have failed. After all, would you hire someone who has been fired from another company? Would you care to look into why they were fired when you have a slew of candidates who have never been terminated? Even if you cared, would you have the time? Imagine hiring a manager to your department who was reprimanded by HR -- you wouldn't! Consider investing in a company who got its CEO from a firm that went down in flames...not with your money.

Here's the other side of it, though: we should not be so quick to destroy people and companies for failing. Instead, we need to support failure, even when it costs us to do so. For example, if a coffee shop messes up your order, you need to invest the additional time to wait for the correction, you need to swallow your frustration, and you need to accept the shop's attempt to compensate you for all of that.  At first blush, we may not want to incur those additional costs, but the alternative is not getting what we want, being even more angry, and spending even more time and energy getting revenge. In short, we need to bite the bullet that some entity has failed us, and be willing to accept reasonable restitution. It is hard for us to be reasonable when we have been wronged, and that is something we need to practice, as well.

The problem, of course, is when there is no ready and reasonable restitution for the mistakes made. If an employee errs and ruins a major project, that may not be repairable. It is very rare, however, for a mistake to be so powerful and devastating that there is no way to fix it. In many cases, it may seem this way at first, and the key in such situations is to acknowledge the problem first, and then investigate (that does not mean go hunting for a scapegoat -- focus on processes and facts, not people).  If necessary, bring in a neutral third party to investigate.

Either way, try to determine if the effects are truly catastrophic, irrevocable, irreparable, and final. When they are, it may be time to cut ties and exact pounds of flesh. Otherwise, both sides need to bite the bullet, roll up their sleeves, and engage in their respective parts of the repair process. Believe it or not, it is usually far less costly than cutting ties, getting revenge, and escalating matters. Moreover, the trust and goodwill built in the repair process will make for better strength throughout.

When we can do that successfully, we will be sufficiently capable of accepting failure well enough to be innovators.

By the way, whom would you rather hire -- someone with a perfect record, or someone who has bounced back from failure?

Orin's Asides
Huzzah to anyone who caught the very-intentional LOTR reference.

Orin C. Davis is a positive psychology researcher and organizational consultant who focuses on enabling people to do and be their best.  His consulting work focuses on maximizing human capital and making workplaces great places to work, and his research focuses on self-actualization, flow, creativity, hypnosis, and mentoring. Dr. Davis is the principal investigator of the Quality of Life Laboratory and the Chief Science Officer of Self Spark. (@DrOrinDavis)

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