Many years ago, during our leadership careers in the corporate world, failure was seen as a bad thing.
You didn’t want it to happen and you didn’t want to be associated with it.
However, today we both feel very differently about failure.
In the excellent book by Vishen Lakhiani, The Buddha and the Badass, Vishen talks about the power in enabling your teams to fail, and how it can help your teams to grow.
So, why is it important to let your teams fail? And how can leaders today create a space that allows this to happen without compromising on business results?
Let’s find out.
How do you define failure?
Interestingly, Larry Page at Google is a big fan of allowing his teams to fail. He has a system with setting goals that allows 50% of every goal to have a 50% rate of failure.
That means that Google is setting goals knowing that they’re only going to achieve 60% to 70% of them.
So why is Larry Page not only allowing it to happen, but actively encouraging the failures?
First off, the power of allowing your teams to fail all depends on how you define the word failure.
If we accept the definition as failing to achieve what you set out to do, we have to really think about what we are setting out to do. Imagine if what you set out to do was to learn 50 ways not to do something. Well, in that case you’ve succeeded!
On a more serious note, however, when you are careful about how you set your goals, you can make space for failure which allows your team to keep striving, knowing that they’ve done the best they can to reach a goal, but the outcome doesn’t have to be pure and absolute.
In many cases, if you aren’t failing, you aren’t stretching yourself. You’re not stepping outside your comfort zone and ever learning anything new.
A learning experience
It’s been repeated hundreds of times before by countless people, but as the old saying goes, there’s no such thing as failure, there’s only learning experience. Every time a leader is talking about the word “failure”, they need to link the word “learning” to it and see it as the same thing.
With this mindset, failure is just understanding something that didn’t work with a view to deciding what could work in the future.
Making mistakes allows you to reflect and look at why your result was different from the one you set out to achieve. What would you do differently next time that would give you a better result?
So the question isn’t about whether or not failure is bad, it just depends on what we set as our goal. When we set the right goal and frame it in the right way, it makes failure ok.
The challenge for leaders is to make sure you don’t then just give people a reason to not always do their best.
As a leader, you need to gauge your people and your teams, and you need to set goals that they’re going to strive for and learn from whatever the result.
Building the right environment for failure
This comes from setting the right environment within your teams from the very beginning. Creating a space for failure is all about the words you use, and how you behave when you set challenges. As a leader, it is your job to lead by example and set the tone for the rest of your team to follow.
If you say all those wonderful words but when things don’t go the way that you wanted, you talk and act differently, then you’re not walking the talk.
For example, if you start playing it safe and not stepping outside your comfort zone and not allowing yourself to fail, then you’re not setting the right example for people to follow.
Setting bigger goals
Failure has a major impact on your team’s learning and, ultimately, their long-term success. If you never fail, then you probably haven’t set big enough goals. If you don’t push the boundaries and go for bigger, more aggressive goals, you’re always going to keep walking the same tracks without ever knowing what is possible.
We can all set goals that are easy to achieve, but what’s more satisfying – achieving several mediocre targets or one big, aggressively ambitious goal?
We don’t want you to get the wrong idea here. We’re not saying that you shouldn’t worry about failing every goal you set. You should. Some goals you just have to achieve. However, what we’re talking about here is developing, growing and stretching your team, and sometimes you need to fail in order to do that.
In this context, failure is about running your team and providing them with a space to learn. It’s not about playing the corporate game.
Yes, hitting the goal is important, but what did you learn from it? Did it make you stronger, smarter? A better and more capable team? That’s what you need to be thinking about when you and your teams set out on your journeys.
To quote the Silicon Valley startup mantra: “Fail fast. Learn fast.”
We hope you found this article useful!
To learn more about why it’s important to fail, tune in to our weekly podcast, The Leadership Detectives.
P.S. We are always keen to chat with anyone about how they can improve their leadership skills, so to get in touch, feel free to reach out to us on email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.