We can probably all agree that team failure is a tough pill to swallow. But the truth is that it’s also an inevitable part of doing business. No matter how much micromanaging we do, mistakes happen, whether we like it or not. And while leaders can’t avoid this reality, we can modify the way we approach these metaphorical stepping stones and transform them to our advantage.
In my professional experience, “failing forward” moments are some of the most critical.
So what is failing forward? As a major sports fan, one of my favorite all-time quotes is from basketball great Michael Jordan: "I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."
The concept of learning from your mistakes isn’t a new one. In fact, many leadership books have been written on the topic, including John Maxwell’s “Fail Forward,” Ryan Babineaux’s, “Fail Fast, Fail Often” and many more.
While understanding the idea around failing forward is important, it’s equally essential for leaders to foster a culture (a safe culture) of risk-taking in the workplace.
The Consequences Of Ignoring Failures
One of the worst things a leader can do after a team failure is to not address the situation. Sure, it’s natural to not want to discuss the issue – most team members would like to act like it didn’t happen and move on.
However, avoidance can be risky for two reasons:
• Not talking about the issue can instill a sense of fear. Brushing failure under the rug can lead to an atmosphere steeped in fear. To start, some employees who feel like they’re to blame could fear for the fate of their job. Even worse, others might become averse to taking risks, for fear of a similar outcome. Ultimately, the “ignoring it” approach can hinder your team’s success.
• Past mistakes will be repeated. While failure is painful in the moment, our mistakes can provide us with teachable moments. Deconstruct with team members what parts went wrong in a collaborative, considerate manner to learn together, and to prevent similar mistakes from occurring down the road.
Embrace Failure To Launch Forward
Throughout my career (you can ask all of my bosses), I have always been confident about taking risks and making judgment calls on new strategies to move my organizations’ forward.
My current and past supervisors can also attest that no matter how confident I was about some of those risks, they didn't always work to my advantage. However, they also didn't hold me back me from stepping outside of my comfort zone to take another risk.
Instead, these managers focused on making sure that I learned from what aspects went wrong, and that my percentages of wins were much higher than my losses. Those percentages eventually improved for me as I learned how to fail forward.
As a result, I was given safe places to fail. Even better, those experiences transformed me into a better decision-maker and someone who has since been relentless on discovering and utilizing best practices in my field.
Here are some practical steps you can take to turn failure around in your organization:
Foster A Growth Mindset
Research shows that those organizations that encourage a “growth mindset” are more likely to equip their employees for success.
Additionally, those individuals who adopt a growth mindset belief can enhance their abilities and skills, resulting in significant improvements in leadership.
One of the key advantages of the growth mindset is how you look at and deal with setbacks.
Those employees and managers that embrace this mindset commonly view mistakes via a learning lens and their initial lack of success contribute to the improvement process.
Create A Safe Environment For ‘Failing Forward’
Set out to create a safe culture of learning and creativity. As Microsoft leaders have noted, "We want to be a learning-all company, not a know-it-all company."
A Harvard Business Journal author stated: “Only leaders can create and reinforce a culture that counteracts the blame game and makes people feel both comfortable with and responsible for surfacing and learning from failures.”
As such, management should urge their companies to establish a concrete realization of what occurred during the “fail,” and not point fingers when plans go south.
Some industry experts believe that for effective learning, leaders should plan to strategically produce experimental failures – in the right place at the right time.
After all, every failure bears valuable information. What better reason does your team need than to try and try again to get that winning recipe for success before the competition does?
Why Failing Forward Is Vital For Modern Leaders
To succeed in business today, it’s essential to learn how to fail forward. And of equal significance, it’s crucial to also model and instill this strategy within the culture of your company. Remember, it’s the art of failing forward that will ultimately drive sustainability, and teach collaboration, empowerment and resilience.
So while team failure can feel catastrophic in the moment, with a growth mindset top of mind the right amount of time and collaborative analysis of “steps that went wrong,” your employees will learn valuable lessons that can transform even the most upsetting failure into something greater than you ever imagined.