Curious about failure: 6 things leaders need to keep in mind

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One of the smartest things you can do as a leader is to be curious about failure. Sounds like the entirely ‘wrong’ emphasis doesn’t it? But let me explain what I mean.

In business today there is a lot of talk about the need for innovation and the subject of innovation is not unrelated to the broader topic of adaptability. In the global context that is one of ubiquitous change, connection and diversity the need to adapt and innovate is self-evident. The problem however is that we have built organisations that often prize stability over adaptability; certainty over curiosity; measurement over creativity; performance over learning; efficiency over passion and the short-term over the long-term.

Einstein quoteFailure is an important part of the learning process. Without it, learning is diluted, usually too ‘safe’ and has little traction. Today being a ‘learning organization’ is simply not optional and this means we must find ‘better ways to fail’ in that learning process. We tend to reward success and of course there in nothing inherently wrong with recognising high performance. However, if the way we go about measuring and rewarding success reduces the willingness to experiment and learn through our failure, then there is a problem.

Failure is not something most leaders like talking about and the word has been pushed into the shadows, has become disconnected from the mainline leadership conversation. There are many things that have influenced why this is the case including specific organisational cultures and the personality of the leader him or herself. Many leaders are what the Enneagram (a personal profiling tool) terms the ‘need to succeed’ and for such types failure is avoided at all costs. It is therefore not surprising that they would do little to encourage conversations around learning from failure and the role that failure can play in the bigger scheme of things.

In a leadership programme in which I am involved, participants are encouraged to explore the question: ‘where is the place of your deepest learning?’ It is a profound and important question. The answer is usually one that speaks of deep loss or pain; of a circumstance or situation that is not one that the individual wishes to revisit. Somehow though this is what life serves to us and when we understand that such instances – be they momentarily or over a period of time, are the conditions conducive to growth that can change things. Leaders need to be willing to host such conversations. You need to explore such territory at a personal level if you are to help others do it for themselves. Naturally there is an ‘appropriateness’ to all this and the need for a good sense of timing but nonetheless, it is where the deeper leadership and learning agenda is to found.

When it comes to failure there would be a few things that as a leader you would keep in mind:

1.    Failure is part of any journey; it is a necessary part of life.
2.    In the pursuit of innovation, failure is guaranteed.
3.    Being curious about failure will open the way to learn from failure
4.    Leaders fail. It is how you fail (and your response) that matters most
5.    Smart organisations understand that failure is necessary in adapting
6.    Adapting is non-negotiable in today’s context

So, in your organisation what are the questions you need to be asking around failure?

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