How to Build a Culture of Agility When Everyone’s Afraid to Fail

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In a competitive marketplace, organizations try to combat new challenges and disruptive ideas with innovation and creativity. But there’s just one thing — it’s practically impossible to be innovative and creative if you’re restricted by a fear of failure. You simply don’t have access to the agility required to respond and adapt to new problems with new solutions.

It’s natural for employees to fear failure. It feels good to excel at your job, and the promotions that come with success feel pretty good, too. When you fail, at least momentarily, it feels like a personal failure that’s final — especially if you don’t think your organization trusts you to succeed in the future.

So how can your organization coach employees to open up to innovation and creativity when the path to greater levels of success means risking more failure? Here are four ways you can do just that:

Illuminate the Difference Between Failure and Mistakes

The first step in encouraging employees to embrace failure is to clearly define the term. To the untrained eye, failure can seem an awful lot like making mistakes. But there’s a key difference between failure and mistakes: failure means that something you thought could work did not work; mistakes, on the other hand, imply poor decision-making or simply doing the wrong thing. Depending on the severity, mistakes can be forgiven, or an employee can be educated to fix them. Failure, however, is simply a temporary state occupied by an employee during the process of arriving at a viable solution.

This difference is crucial in helping employees embrace failure. No one wants to suddenly start making mistakes or going against their good judgment for the sake of experimentation. So, be clear that that’s not what you’re asking employees to do. Share a definition of failure that emphasizes trying fresh ideas or asking simple but challenging questions that lead to new discoveries.

Learn to Try Things, Not Try to Fix Things

In a previous article about cultural agility, we made the case that cultural agility is about learning to try things, not trying to fix things. It sounds like a quirky play on words, but this approach can be a challenging adaptation for many. Because smart people are adept at finding short cuts, it’s natural to figure out “the best” way to do something and stick with it indefinitely. The problem is then considered “fixed” forever, and learning to try things again ends up pushing against our most established instincts for efficiency.

Agility asks a person to try something new — that they think could work — for the sake of new potential. Rather than trying to fix the problem as quickly as possible with whatever tried-and-true formula already exists, an attitude of “trying” makes room for innovation, creativity  — the very attributes we’re trying to encourage by embracing failure.

Make Room for Failure In the Paperwork

It’s easy to say, “Everyone should embrace new learning experiences.” However, the value of learning can get lost in the noise when a company is focused on a million other important things such as customer satisfaction, employee performance, and a given project’s ROI.

Do you have to stop all normal business processes and encourage employees to start failing for fun? Not at all. You can integrate this critical value into your company culture through repetition by including a “Learning” segment in project and employee evaluations. Giving employees a clear opportunity to announce what they tried, what didn’t work, and what they learned will make it clear that management and leadership are interested in how projects are completed, not simply that they are completed.

Give Failure Its 15 Minutes of Fame

More often than not, failure gets pushed under the rug as an embarrassment. Staff meetings and “employee of the month” contests rarely feature someone failing. Instead, we draw attention to the high performers, creating a false story that success is completely linear. (Where is this lie better exposed than in the following illustration making its rounds on LinkedIn?)

Source: http://georgecouros.ca/
Source: http://georgecouros.ca/

So, bring it out into the light. Incorporate failure into your professional development topics, and consider featuring “employees of the month” that don’t look like the typical all-star performer. Feature failure during professional development activities by asking your CEO to share failures that took place early in her career and how they’ve shaped her current experience, or asking  managers to share appropriate stories about poor decisions they’ve made and what they’ve learned from those experiences. Get leaders to share their stories and you’ll see employees re-consider what they’ve learned from their own failures.

 

While it’s difficult to encourage agility within an organization that is afraid to fail, we think it’s worth the risk. Fear of failure kills innovation and creativity. Fortunately, failure tolerance is a skill that can be developed if employees have a safe space in which they can practice.

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