Why "It's OK to Fail" Often Doesn't Work


Failure has become a fetish you can't avoid. Media profiles focus on what entrepreneurs and other leaders have learned from their failures.  Conference panels regularly feature thought leaders discussing the importance of failure. Here in Indianapolis last year, we celebrated failure with an entire day devoted to the topic: Fail Fest.

That all of this is happening is not surprising. As the desire to innovate has taken hold in institutions of all forms (education, government, nonprofit, and corporate), the admonishment that "It's OK to fail" has increased in both volume and frequency.  In my role as a facilitator and speaker, I've been present when executives and innovators delivered this message from the stage, as well as committee chairs or staff liaisons in the conference room.

Here's what I am noticing in many cases: it's not working.  Despite permission being granted more often by more people in more ways, I don't think it is having the intended effect.  Of the many possible reasons why, let me focus on two that I believe are fundamental.

Reason #1: 
How OK failure looks and feels depends on your standing in the organization.

Large hiring bonuses are given to executives who often also receive huge parachute payouts when their failures or disappointing performance get them fired.  When the worst thing that can happen is you get fired and walk out the door with a six or seven-figure check, it is indeed very OK to fail.

Employees or volunteers can be forgiven for not jumping at the chance to fail when invited by individuals with significant organizational security (whether it be tied to contract terms, title, tenure, skill, networks, or otherwise).  Failure looks different through the lens of insecurity.

Before telling everyone that it's OK to fail, at minimum spend more time (1) thinking about how this advice/request sounds to those possessing less privilege within the organization and perhaps framing your message differently, and (2) ensuring that the organization's key systems (performance reviews, compensation, et al) are aligned with the acceptance of failure you envision.

Be mindful that failure is a very powerful term, one which evokes strong reactions from many people depending on their past experiences and the consequences they faced. Some individuals feel an intense pressure not to fail, one often associated with cultural considerations like race, gender, ethnicity, or age. And finally, the potential consequences of failing run counter to some of what research has shown human beings to value in relationships, most notably in the work of Chris Argyris.

The gravitational pull of the values Argyris identified may be compounded in organizations representing risk-averse professions or disciplines, as well as charities and other nonprofits with volunteer leaders serving in brief terms of office.  Few appointed or elected leaders want their legacy to be the year that XYZ program failed spectacularly because they tried a major innovation.  Yet, the cost of avoiding any setbacks or failures in the short-term may be the increasing likelihood of more damaging failures in the future. Both avoiding and embracing failure have associated risk and costs to consider.

Bottom line? It's OK to fail often fails to persuade because its evangelists do not adequately consider the very human dynamics associated with their message. Effective leadership appropriately surfaces, explores, and addresses them.

How might you do that?  Here is a simple survey I used as part of retreat preparation for a very large national nonprofit media company looking to foster a more innovative culture.  Employees were invited to anonymously respond to the following questions:
  1. When you think of the current culture, what changes would need to occur to foster greater support of innovation and collaboration?
  2. What behaviors, communication practices, etc. would senior managers need to model in order to illustrate a commitment to innovation and collaboration?  In other words, if senior managers "walked the talk", what would that look like?
  3. What skills might you need to develop or what support might you need to maximize your potential contribution to a more innovative and collaborative culture?
The dozens of thoughtful employee responses gave the senior management team more than enough information and insight to immediately initiate a variety of strategic and tactical shifts.

Reason #2: 
What is meant by failure is not commonly understood.

Have you or someone else in your organization told others that it's OK to fail? If so, let me ask you to conduct a little experiment.  Ask a sufficient sample of folks what they think the statement means and what it gives them permission to do. When I've done this in sessions I've facilitated the range of responses suggest more communication is required than a nice four-word mantra.

Some respondents focus on failure as an end state. They believe that if they "give it their best shot" and final results fall short, they won't suffer negative consequences.  Others focus on failure as embodied in the IDEO mantra: fail faster in order to succeed sooner. For them failure is more about experiencing little setbacks in an iterative product or program development process, not the final verdict.

It's OK to fail is a wonderful principle, but individuals need more detail and guidance about what it looks like in practice ... how it should show up both individually and collectively. In other words, people need to hear the story of It's OK to fail in action.  It is the job of leadership to craft and communicate this story, appropriately contrasting differences in how things may get done now with how they should be done in the future: "instead of doing this, try this ... " And in some cases, the story that need to be told is less about "it's OK to fail" and more about "we expect you to experiment, iterate, learn, and improve over and over again."

Regardless, we need to take individuals on a detailed journey through how the principle will behaviorally unfold at all levels: organization, department, project team, and ultimately, personal and individual. Entities with volunteers must share a story that also includes the board, chapters or other components, and committees and task forces. What are the various thresholds of/for failure?

Doing so helps people begin to let go of the past and try on new beginnings and behaviors ... two of the stages of transition William Bridges so effectively addresses in his work. Even if you can let go of any fear of failure that you may have and even if you are ready to embrace contributing to a culture where it is OK to fail, doing so is difficult without adequate specifics.

Bottom line? We can't expect people to be contributing characters to a story they do not understand.

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A few years ago, I tested my own acceptance of It's OK to Fail when I decided to do an IGNITE talk on innovation and failure in a priest's robe and in the style of a sermon. This IGNITE program was ASAE's inaugural effort, and we did our talks first at a public session in DC (at Busboys and Poets) prior to presenting them at ASAE's Great Ideas Conference. You can judge the results here in this five-minute video.