My first professional experience with failure was not a gift, it was a trauma. In my first job, eons ago, I sent a delivery to the wrong customer. The consequence of that mistake was a stern reprimand from the “boss of the bosses,” someone I rarely saw let alone encountered (his office was about as far away from employees as physically possible). I was told in no uncertain terms that my actions were unacceptable and further mistakes would “cost me dearly.” The fact that I can still remember that chilling incident decades later speaks to the sense of shame I’ve attached to the experience.  Failure was an embarrassment, something to be assiduously avoided.

How things have changed.  Mistakes have become the impetus for entrepreneurship and innovation.

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In the past, in a time of slow, incremental change, most organizations cherished the status quo. Business-as-usual was the mantra, with stability highly valued.   In that environment, it almost made sense to avoid mistakes or failures because we were trying to repeat what was already known.  Mistakes threatened the order of things. But change in virtually all enterprises today is rapid and often unpredictable.

In this milieu, failure becomes an asset, an instructive advantage leading to fresh ideas and imaginative responses to complex, shifting circumstances. The old template of stability and predictability no longer fits. That is why re-framing failure from a weakness to a strength is gaining acceptance in both the public and private sectors.

Balanced Leadership supports the emerging view that failure needs to be reframed in this era of uncertainty and disruption. Making mistakes is viewed differently in the love-based world.  That’s not to say we are throwing out the fear-based world for things like effective parcel delivery (too bad!).  The positive side of the fear-based world, that is, the world of planning, implementation and efficiency, is crucial to providing quality services.  But so too is the open, curious, flexible love-based world.  My mistake years ago may have identified areas for improving delivery service.  When creativity is a factor or preparation for an unpredictable future is needed, applying the fear-based world practices just gets in the way.

In the fear-based world, failure is perceived negatively.  It’s ultimately about fear, about pushing away or back against something we think we want to avoid. But when failure is considered in positive terms, the love-based motivation – to draw the experience towards us – comes into play.  Mistakes are no longer to be strenuously avoided but unintended outcomes to be openly explored with curiosity.  To paraphrase another current phrase, failure is not only an option, but a key factor in innovation and growth.  Let’s not forget, embracing mistakes has brought us everything from penicillin to post-it notes!

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It may seem like a daunting task for us individually and also collectively within organizations to suddenly view failure as a gift rather than a burden. If your conditioned default response to mistakes is fear-based, moving that experience into the love-based world will likely take some practise. Here are three ways to jumpstart the process:

1) “Mind the gap” (take a moment and use the critical space between stimulus and response to choose a different action.  See previous blog for more information);

2) When a “mistake” happens, consciously shift from judgement to curiosity and ask yourself – What is there to learn from this experience?;

3) Let go of having a specific outcome or goal in mind, allowing yourself some wandering time just to see where you end up.  The key is to create a container of time that you can do this in.  Expect no productivity from this time – just experience it.

When failure ceases to be associated with blame and shame, it provides individuals and organizations with opportunities to grow, inquire and learn.  When failure is considered a gift, the experience becomes a resource for creativity and innovation. When failure is seen as a positive development, it opens up opportunities for professional growth and organizational success.

 

Here’s some great articles on the benefits of failure:

Globe and Mail article: Failed at Business? Throw a Party!

Globe and Mail: New Products from “Tons of Errors”

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