failureWhy are we so afraid to admit to making a mistake?  Failure, it seems, is universally seen as something to be avoided at all costs.  In a recent project where we investigated safety practices in mining, one of the key issues we identified was the tendency to try to hide failure by shifting blame, not reporting near misses, and scape-goating.  This, in an industry where learning from other’s mistakes can save lives.

I don’t know about you, but I tend to put a lot more thought into a personal failure or mistake than into a success.  Humans seem to take positive outcomes for granted, we don’t spend hours analysing why we were succesful, we pat ourselves on the back and move on.  When we fail however, we can spend hours, agonising over the potential reasons, running “what if” and “if only” scenarios over and over in our minds.  I came across a reference to a Ben Zander technique on Elmi Bester’sblog.  Apparently he introduced several ceremonies to elicit input and feedback from his orhestra.  One of these is to respond with “How fascinating” to an admission of a mistake or failure. He encourages people to see making a mistake as a fascinating opportunity to learn. Because, “when you are doing things right, you are often not conscious”.  This seemingly increased level of mindfulness when dealing with failure is something that should be tapped into.

Bob Sutton talks about treating everything as a prototype.  I’m sure everyone has also heard the much quoted story of how Edison didn’t have failures while inventing the light bulb, he just found many different ways of “how not to do it” and persevered.  We’ve long advocated the need to shift from fail-safe design thinking to safe-fail experimentation thinking.

All this being said, I think that a healthy attitude to failure is invaluable to a leader and to an organisation. People who are afraid of the consequences of failure will stifle innovation, they will poison the culture with blaming behaviors and they may put lives at risk in certain industries such as mine safety.  Cultivating ceremonies where stories of failures and mistakes can safely be shared and learned from should be a key goal for leaders.  Maybe we should start thinking of developing worst practice databases and not best practice databases …