Level Up by Falling Down: The Power of Failure and Resiliency

Level Up by Falling Down: The Power of Failure and Resiliency

What do Coca Cola’s James Quincey, Netflix’s Reed Hastings, Domino’s Pizza’s Patrick Doyle and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos all have in common?

Despite being responsible for the bottom line of large organizations, they encourage their employees to fail. That’s right, fail – as in bomb, blow it, screw up, bottom out, crash and burn.

A Spectrum of Reasons for Failure,” with causes ranging from deliberate deviation to thoughtful experimentation. (From HBR)

Praise or Blame? The “Spectrum of Reasons for Failure” shows how all failure is not equal. (Chart courtesy of HBR)

The Cost Of Cautiousness

As a culture, we are hard-wired to avoid failure. Our aversion is deeply rooted in fear: fear of public humiliation, fear of losing a job or career, or even fear of a lawsuit. It can sometimes take a person or organization years to bounce back from a failure, especially one that was well-publicized or widely ridiculed. For example, after the “New Coke” fiasco, the beverage company went into (an overly) cautious mode with regards to new product development, by choosing to play not to lose instead of playing to win they would avoid a potential large-scale mistake but they also severely limited their chance of scoring a big success.

A Slow Evolution to Experimentation

Given this natural aversion to failure, encouraging a potential “crash & burn” is not exactly what you’d expect from those who lead large companies in the public eye, some with investors watching to boot. But many CEOs have come to embrace the “If we’re not making mistakes, we’re not trying hard enough” philosophy that James Quincey shared in the Harvard Business Review. Though it’s still not the most accepted approach, it is slowly becoming more widely adopted as companies face a ever-tougher job to enhance their standing in a very competitive market.

“Experiments are by their very nature prone to failure. But a few big successes compensate for dozens and dozens of things that didn’t work.”
– Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com

Not All Failure is Equal

In her article on Strategies for Learning from Failure, Harvard Business Review’s Amy Edmundson lays out three broad categories for mistakes: preventable, complexity-related, and intelligent.

The first two categories are the missteps most often considered “bad”. But even with “preventable” failures such as these, improvements can be the end result if the focus is not on assigning blame, but on learning and growth. Prompt enhancement of training and/or the reworking of processes can help prevent small failures from snowballing into larger ones.

On the other end of Edmunsdson’s scale are what Duke University professor of management Sim Sitkin refers to as “intelligent failures”. These often reveal a wealth of information that can propel a company forward. The same is true for these types of failures on an individual level – your best insights for improvement are going to come from risks taken by exploring new ideas, areas or skills.

STOUT Takeaways: How To Embrace And Learn From Failure  

▸ Know your strengths AND weaknesses.
CEO Sarah O’Hagan realized her failure at Virgin Megastores was rooted in the fact that she focused only on her strengths. Instead of ignoring your “areas of opportunity” (O’Hagan term for weak spots), add members to your team whose strengths compliment – not duplicate – yours.
▸ Be honest.
After securing a huge promotion, O’Hagan arrived hours late to her first day on the new job because she slept in after over-celebrating. Instead of trying to cover it up, she was frank with her new boss. While not pleased with the lateness, he did appreciate her candor. She kept the job – and learned several valuable lessons.
▸ Forget about “how it looks”.
A fear of “what people will think” is a huge factor in the unwillingness to take chances and fail. Paste this quote from last week’s Pivot to Pitch panelist, Sara Christensen, on your wall and repeat daily: “No one gives as much of a shit about what I have going on as I thought that they did.”
▸ Create a culture of learning instead of blame.
If an organization is truly going to learn from failure, it needs to support those who take chances, whether they succeed or not. Even when a leader is willing to support failure as a learning tool, it can be hard to change mindsets. Be extra visible in your encouragement of employees who report when things are not going well, in addition to the successes.
▸ Don’t give up.
O’Hagan’s first attempt to turn things around during her time at Gatorade resulted in the business going, “from stagnant into decline”. Luckily, she and the organization did not panic. They took a deep breath, then carefully analyzed what worked and what didn’t. By continually refining their course based on lessons from failure, they eventually got the results they were looking for.

Pitfalls of The Blame Game

Despite mounting evidence of the value of failure despite the cause, the blame game still persists in many places. Consider Edmundson’s poll of CEOs and their responses regarding failure and blame. “When I ask executives to consider this spectrum and then to estimate how many of the failures in their organizations are truly blameworthy, their answers are usually in single digits—perhaps 2% to 5%”, she reports. “But when I ask how many are treated as blameworthy, they say (after a pause or a laugh) 70% to 90%. The unfortunate consequence of focusing on assigning blame is that many failures go unreported and their lessons are lost.

“For me, what led me to getting into trouble and getting fired was the fact that I had some very clear emerging strengths and I had clear areas of opportunity. I was starting to overplay the strengths so heavily and ignoring the areas for opportunity, that they were becoming really big blind spots.”
– Sarah Robb O’Hagan, CEO of Flywheel Sports

Failing Well

Blameworthy or not,  there is learning and improvement to be had in every misstep. In fact, Smith College in Massaschusett’s even offers a program called “Failing Well”. The goal, explains Smith administrator Rachel Simmons in an interview with the New York Times, is to “teach that failure is not a bug of learning, it’s the feature.” But it’s important to actually believe in the possibilities of failure and act on them, not just give lip service to the concept.

Facing failure with a sense of resiliency can power both creativity as well as personal and professional growth. Visit the Stout archives here for more about the power of resiliency and how to cultivate it. And stay tuned this month as we explore even more ways for you to #BringOutYourStout and LEVEL UP.