Who Likes to Fail?


Here’s the thing about embracing failure. It sounds great in the abstract, but it’s often painful as an actual experience. Sometimes I’ll pose a question: “Who likes to fail?” And no matter how innovation-hungry or start-up ready the room I’m speaking to might be, I’ve never had anybody say yes. Until recently.
 After raising his hand, a talented GE software engineer said that he’d actually developed an appetite for failure in his career — one that’s served him well. In his first few weeks with the company, this engineer dug his heels in and stuck with a favorite software tool he felt was best suited to the job at hand. But when it came down to the wire, his pet solution tanked. So he was forced to spend his weekend frantically creating a hybrid of his own work and what the rest of his department had been building. The resulting innovation ended up saving the day, and his job. 
 In the short run, failure was worth the gut-wrenching feeling that he was sure to get fired.
 And that’s the other thing about embracing failure. It works best when we’ve put everything we can into our work. Failure, then, is like everything else: we get back what we put in. 
 To quote the software engineer: “If I didn’t fail, I wouldn’t have learned anything. And if I hadn’t had the courage to put everything I had in it, to fail fast, I would have been out of the job. I also learned that you can fail and learn if your leader trusts you.”
 The last point, about failure from a leader’s perspective, is important. Failure from an individual perspective is one thing, but what are you supposed to say to your boss when it happens? And if you’re in a leadership role, how do you react when people come to you with bad news, or ask permission to try something that might fail?
 For both team leaders and individuals, making failure useful starts with the right questions. Instead of “What went wrong?” you might ask “What did we learn?” Instead of prescribing a particular course of action, try giving teams a goal, with a vision of what good might look like, along with a broad set of parameters to work in. Then ask them how they plan to get their own their own — and hammer home that it’s okay for them to make some mistakes on the way. One leader I know says her role is “being present for the problem.” While finding it uncomfortable at first, she’s found that giving her team freedom to figure it out has resulted in more creativity.
 “What’s your hypothesis?” is another one of my favorite go-to questions. That’s the essence of GE’s FastWorks approach. With FastWorks, you create an opportunity to test out a view of reality, and amend it every time you get new information. It’s an experimental mindset — and one that business isn’t always comfortable with. Conventional wisdom says we’re supposed to know all the answers all the time. Nope, that’s a state of mind that’s sure to lead to a dead-end.
 When I get asked “What’s your biggest failure?” I often hesitate. Not because I haven’t failed, but because I do it so often. To be honest, when it comes to defining the way that failure is woven in to my work, I don’t even know where to start. I even feel that the question comes with the pressure to have the perfect failure, the one that meshes perfectly with whatever discussion I’m in, or even crystallizes the evolution of my entire career.
 But the truth is, there’s no one big failure that results in a transformative lesson that’s a prelude to an unblemished future. For most of us mere mortals, we’re in continual failing mode. Sometimes the failures are big, sometimes they are small. With the right mindset, one that’s as honest and fearless from the start, it’s easier to fail small, early and regularly, rather than waiting for the big dramatic explosion. It’s a daily process, and it doesn’t always feel great, but I’ve come to treasure it as a constant source of meaning and motivation. When I fail, I know I’m on the ropes but still in the game, which is the only place I ever want to be.
 The small, daily grind of failing and learning is how we get better. And for some types of knowledge, it’s the only way to get them.
 This week, I’ll be asking myself: How have I failed? What did I learn? How can I fail better next time? I’d love to hear your answers to these questions in the comments.


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