Failure is NOT an option: It’s a must

failure-complains1“Failure is not an option.” This phrase has become increasingly commonplace in recent years. The phrase comes courtesy of the Hollywood scriptwriters for the 1995 Ron Howard film, Apollo 13, in which Ed Harris played Kranz. It perfectly captures the attitude and tenacity that enabled Kranz and his team at NASA to learn from the multiple near-misses, unsuccessful attempts at fixes, and unprecedented challenges that arose as they worked tirelessly to save the spacecraft and the three astronauts on board. The reality is that Kranz and his team failed repeatedly during the mission. But with each failure they gained valuable information and knowledge that contributed to their ultimate success.

We led a number of missions in the Army, it is not always that we succeeded. There were instances where our ambush was sited at a place where the terrorists bypassed it (incorrect assessment of terrain). We didn’t give up .. learnt and build a repository for subsequent actions/ units to follow. Operations against terrorists, needs constant learning and re-learning because every situation is different. This sharing of knowledge, building up the repository, learning from failures makes it such a great organization.

Winston Churchill had a similar thought: “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” More recently, the past CEO of Procter and Gamble, arguably one of the most innovative companies in the world, said, “I think of my failures as a gift.” While we like to believe that failure isn’t an option, the reality is that it’s unavoidable. What’s more, it is something we should embrace!

So, what can organizations/ leaders & YOU do to become less risk-averse and more accepting of failure?

  1. Don’t punish “honest” failures. Instead, think about ways you can reward them! When you give associates the freedom to succeed, you also need to give them leeway to fail. SurePayroll, a payroll service for small companies, give out formal and frequent “failure awards” to their people. An interesting concept—and a rare and unique idea.
  2. Design for failure. Many organizations try to succeed every time by coming up with what they deem to be a big idea and then testing it under optimal conditions. A better approach is to make “little bets,” as championed by Peter Sims who wrote a book on innovation with that title. Making little bets entails running multiple small experiments, and then choosing typical or even adverse conditions for pilot programs (automakers, after all, don’t test new vehicles just in sunny weather and on four lane highways).
  3. Learn from failure —and keep going. The end goal of failure is not more failure.  The goal is to dissect, in an open and transparent environment, what went wrong and learn lessons that can be applied next time around.  Medical research firms conduct ground-breaking, life-saving medical treatments and drugs are the result of testing, evaluation (which often entails failure), redesign, and more testing.  Real failure is not having in place strategies for learning from failure.failure6

Being a leader who is okay with failure, who is willing to take risks, and who is a true champion of innovation isn’t easy, especially if it runs counter to your accustomed leadership style. But if you really want to drive innovation in your organization, you have to start somewhere, perhaps by being willing to swing and miss sometimes—and to let your people know it’s okay for them to do the same.




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