Failure is an inevitable part of life, and a part of business too. When mistakes happen, it can be an unfortunate, but necessary step to future success.
Fear of failure – and of the backlash that could follow it – is, ironically, one of the major reasons we don’t learn from setbacks. Instead, people often choose to hide mistakes, or move on from defeats and forget them quickly. When you add blame and finger-pointing into the mix, it causes mistrust, demotivation, and the stifling of innovation and creative thinking.
This article discusses the importance of failure as a constant learning opportunity for your frontline managers, and how they can build a culture of accountability and innovation within their teams.
Failure can propel innovation and growth
At a team level, an understanding of the cause and context of a failure will help avoid unnecessary blame and develop a process for learning from experience. When people and projects don’t meet expectations or objectives, managers should already have a strategy in place for examining what happened, why, and how to improve it for next time or prevent it from happening again. This provides the opportunity to uncover new efficiencies that lead to continuous growth and innovation, thereby creating more refined and well-thought processes.
Setbacks can also reveal the strengths and weaknesses of your organization, giving you a good idea of what you can improve and what you do well. Every business reversal is an opportunity to learn and grow, which is why you should embrace this as a necessary part of future success. It’s not that your managers should celebrate flops, but they should prepare their team members. More importantly, you should also help them learn from it, using it as a catalyst for learning new lessons, identifying new best practices, and spurring constant improvement.
Building a culture of fearless accountability
You can help your managers build a culture that embraces the lessons learned from obstacles or challenges. Most executives think that poor results must logically lead to blame or more serious consequences. But not all failures are worthy of such strong reactions. In fact, rather than leading with fear and hesitation when facing new challenges, managers should encourage their team to approach projects with enthusiasm, curiosity, confidence and accountability.
The question that should be asked after every failure is “what happened?” not “who did it?”. Otherwise, team members might feel compelled to throw colleagues under the bus to avoid accountability, which can cause mistrust, team dysfunction, and a loss of collaboration.
Once you have accepted that failure is inevitable but not necessarily negative, managers can then begin to prepare colleagues to deal with it constructively and learn from it to strengthen and polish their efforts next time. The goal should be to make progress to learn something each time.
How managers can prepare their teams when projects miss the mark
- Acknowledge that there was a failure using a neutral and non-emotional manner
- Avoid any messaging that could demotivate or demoralize your team
- Celebrate both failures and successes as learning opportunities
- Never play the blame game or embarrass team members for their errors; instead, present it in a debriefing format to discuss what went wrong and what went right
- Regroup and analyze your strategy after a major setback; make a new plan for the new reality
- Consider incorporating new methodologies into project planning to build innovation capabilities and to work out potential problems earlier in the process, such as lean startup, design thinking, and Agile.
The skills managers should encourage in their teams
There are identifiable soft skills that you can add to your leaning strategy to help your managers understand, accept, and learn from failure. For instance, the ability to give and take constructive feedback is vitally important because without an honest give and take of ideas, forward progress is impossible and lessons can’t be learned. Another important soft skill is active listening, or the ability to listen attentively to a colleague, understand their meaning, reflect thoughtfully on what’s being said, and retain that information for later use. This is an important skill for ensuring the success of a project, and conversely, for understanding how mistakes happen and how to move forward from them.
Additionally, emotional intelligence and resilience allow team members to accept valid criticism, critical to move forward from failure. Finally, open-mindedness and creative thinking allow managers to apply the lessons from a setback to create new and innovative solutions and practices. These soft skills can and should be encouraged in all colleagues, but are especially important when it comes to analyzing and responding to organizational failures.
Not every project or launch will be a smashing success. Recognizing failure and learning from it requires well-skilled middle managers who aren’t afraid to try new things and take calculated risks. Managers should design a strategy for examining failure and encourage their team not to fear it. You should enforce this by training people in the kind of soft skills that will help them manage failure emotionally and pragmatically. Organizations that have a plan for learning from failure and turning it into progress never lose.