Failing to risk: More dangerous than risking failure

You probably say you want experimentation in your organisation. But what do you do to encourage, enable, and reward experiments? More importantly, what do you do to punish, discourage, and inhibit risk?

An organisation that doesn’t allow failure and embrace risk is never going to succeed at experimentation and innovation.

It’s become a buzz phrase, straight out of the Clayton Christensen disruptive-innovation playbook, that we need to learn how to “fail fast.” And that’s fine as part of a healthy culture of experimentation.

But if your company’s version of failing fast is killing every experiment before it has a chance to succeed, you are actually choosing not to succeed at innovation.

Maybe it’s time for a risk assessment of your organisation, a clear-eyed analysis of your experience with experimentation. Ask these questions about your company (or your corner of the company):

  1. What are some recent failed experiments in your company?

    If you don’t have any failed experiments, that says a lot about your organisation’s willingness to take risk. Unless you have a lot of bold successes you can claim, a lack of failed experiments is a clear sign that your culture is unwilling to risk failure.

  2. What happened to the people who led the failed experiments?

    Did you fire them? If you did, that sent a strong message to the people still working for you, even if the failure wasn’t the direct reason for their dismissal. Don’t expect the remaining staff members to ever try anything as bold.

    Did the risk-takers decide to leave? If so, you should debrief with them and learn whether a negative response to their experiment chased them away. Have they received promotions or enviable assignments since the failure (not necessarily because of the failure, but not held back by it)?

  3. Are they willing to risk again?

    Ask the participants of a failed project if they’re willing to try again. Their answers will tell you a lot about whether your organisation embraces or avoids risk.

  4. What lessons did you learn from the failure(s)?

    “Never do that again” doesn’t count as a lesson. Did you learn that you needed better training? Did you learn that you needed better planning? Did you learn that you over-planned and needed more flexibility to react? Did you learn that certain tools didn’t work for that job? Did you learn that you need to measure results better or differently?

    I once was involved in a creative but unsuccessful project that offered employee incentives for participation. But the incentives weren’t proportional to the work employees were expected to do. The basic idea was sound, but if I were trying such a project again, I’d structure the incentives differently.

  5. How have you shared the lessons?

    Did the leaders of the experiment(s) debrief with their colleagues? You can debrief in writing, reviewing the lessons in a company blog, e-mail, or newsletter. You can debrief in person, either formally in a meeting or informally over lunch. The value of lessons multiplies as you share them.

  6. Did you celebrate the failure?

    Yes, you should celebrate failure. When you shut down the experiment, did you publicly praise those involved, either in a staff e-mail or newsletter, or aloud in a meeting or in the middle of the office?

    I’m not saying you need a failure cake (but I kind of like the idea, perhaps with a whimsical, humble decoration), but I encourage something tangible to recognise the risk and the experiment. Maybe T-shirts or coffee mugs with the logo or slogan of the failed project. Maybe a humorous traveling trophy that the leader keeps until the next audacious but admirable failure.

  7. What was your next experiment?

    The measure of your willingness to embrace risk is not whether you ever failed (though that tells you something). But were you similarly bold again? That tells me a lot more.

  8. What do you learn from your successes?

    Hopefully your experiments include some successes, and you need to learn from those, too. Did you provide better support to those experiments? Were you more (or less) bold than in the failures? Did you provide more training? Or time? Or better equipment? A culture of experimentation requires learning from successes and failures alike.

Don’t just answer these questions yourself. Ask a blunt, trusted middle manager. Ask an enthusiastic employee, but also a cynical one. Ask a couple of former employees.

You can’t fail to risk failure. Or to learn from it.

About Steve Buttry

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