Freedom to fail and “flearn”: why organisations struggle to embrace failure

Trying new ideas is risky business. If you’re trying to be innovative or creative in your industry, you’re bound to make mistakes. In the worst case scenario, the ideas you implement end up failing. There are two ways to deal with this: the first is to associate the failure with you as an individual and then to penalise yourself by blaming the result on you the individual. A more helpful approach is to embrace the failure as a natural result of the process.

The best way to embrace failure is to look at it in terms of the lessons you can garner from it. We call this “flearning” – a portmanteau of failure and learning. Though not always possible, viewing failure as a lesson serves companies in reframing their failures as something to work hard towards not merely avoiding, but embracing and owning.

Here’s why organizations struggle to embrace failure as part of their culture, and how to solve it.

Blame culture

It is human nature to want to blame people when something goes wrong. It comes from the need to protect ourselves from being ascribed to causing calamity, and links in with our need to feel in control. While it comes from a good place, organisations can often keep up laying the blame as a form of protection. This often leads to a toxic culture of blame.

Blame culture is so unhealthy because it destroys collaboration and trust between employees and leads to blame shifting. With a pervasive blame culture, there is a likelihood of little energy being spent on actually doing exceptional work, but much time wasting on appearing to do great work. There will also be a general lack of accountability when mistakes do occur, and rather than fixing them as they occur, attempts will be made to cover up instead. Blame culture is really just shame culture, and shame culture doesn’t help anybody

The Swiss-Cheese Model

In healthcare, where demands are high and workers are under strain, many mistakes occur. Instead of pointing the blame at any one individual for mistakes, the swiss-cheese model is applied (1). This suggests that mistakes are a result of many “holes” in the system aligning to result in the adverse event. Therefore:

No one person is to blame for the event, it was a series of systemic failures which led up to the misadventure.

This model enables systemic change to ensure prevention of further events, and increased accountability by staff who report events rapidly. The Swiss-Cheese model can be applied in theory to the business workplace also, in that mistakes which occur can be as a result of multiple oversights compounding each other. Employees should then seek to address the system to correct mistakes rather than blaming each other.

The creative process should be inclusive not exclusive

The creative process only works in its truest form when everyone is involved. Involving all team members in the creative process will lead to the best ideas being discovered. Encouraging ideas from all members of the team creates a culture of inclusive innovation. Collaboration not only results in great ideas, but also allows each member of the team to feel heard in the decision making process on innovation, which is an important step in building company culture.

Embracing failure

As the great poet Alexander Pope stated; “to err is human”. Innovative solutions are created through trial and error, and it takes good leadership to find the balance between risk taking and the embrace of failure.

The key to this is in encouraging team members to learn from their mistakes and to report them with transparency. Helping your team understand that failure is not to be feared, but to be recognised as part of the creative process. The most effective way to deal with failure, then, is to make it fast.

Move fast and break things

Facebook might be going through a tough time right now, but it is definitely the benchmark when it comes to embracing failure as part of culture. Mark Zuckerberg’s famed saying “move fast and break things” becomes part of the zeitgeist of embracing failure. Failure should be understood to be a natural part of the learning process, but recovery should be quick, and the best employees will be adaptive and versatile when dealing with their mistakes.
(1) Seshia SS, Young GB, Makhinson M, Smith PA, Stobart K, Croskerry P.  Gating the holes in the Swiss Cheese (Part I): Expanding professor Reason’s model for patient safety. J Eval Clin Pract. 2017;24(1):187-97.

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