Failing, done well, is a kick-tail winning strategy for your team

How often have you heard the statement that “failure is not an option”? In a recent strategic planning session, the owner of the company, Dan, was adamant about this. It is how he was raised, how his father ran the company, and how he now runs the company. It’s the philosophy he believes in and shares with a very young management team.

The forcefulness of Dan’s tone surprised me. He is not one of those larger-than-life personalities who you associate with that perspective. Dan is tough-minded, yes, and clearly expects much from his team, but he’s not the pound-the-table kind of guy.

I appreciate the sentiment. We all seek success. There aren’t many of us who don’t like to win. I don’t, however, agree with the statement that “failure is not an option.” It is. Aside from truly mission-critical situations, like heart surgery, it’s simply not the preferred one.

It was important to push Dan to better understand where he was coming from. As he grew up in the family business, his father ruled with a firm hand. When things went sideways, Dan heard about it. When things went well, no news from Dad was good news. This, as is common in families, became Dan’s mode of operating. He expects performance. When he hasn’t seen it, he makes some noise because failure is not an option. You drive to success. Period.

The facts don’t actually bear this out. Researchers at Northwestern University have studied results of 46 years’ worth of venture capital and startup data, as well as over 170,000 terrorist attacks, and can mathematically predict the success or failure of an undertaking. Their conclusion, as highlighted in Scientific American: Failure is “the essential prerequisite for success.” Taking it a step farther, the researchers concluded “every winner begins a loser” and that the tighter the intervals of attempts, the better the opportunity for eventual success, assuming that one is learning from their mistakes. It turns out that failing, done well, leads to winning.

Yet Dan’s philosophy has shaped his team. When I facilitate strategic planning sessions, part of my job is to observe the team dynamics. In Dan’s session, the managers deferred to Dan when I asked questions. This is common, even in seasoned management teams. This was the first time this team had ever had a meeting like this. They were nervous.

After a few awkward silences, I shared that I had, in effect, “put tape on Dan’s mouth” and directed him to sit on his hands and be as quiet as he could so we could draw out the team and get their perspectives. While they were uncomfortable in the beginning, they loosened up and started engaging in the conversation, debating different issues. In turn, Dan was able to observe for himself the fact that the team had a good handle on the issues and ideas for problem solving. What they lacked was the permission to try, fail, and try again.

Consider how we learn and grow, even at a young age. My nephew has a young baby. If the first two years of life aren’t a fascinating demonstration of why failure is an option, I don’t know what is. This baby is a gorgeous pudge, so rolling over was not an on-time arrival for this guy. He had to try and try and try again to build the muscle memory and strength to roll over. While the new parents fretted, they witnessed the power of failure. Every time the baby tried and failed, he learned something — sometimes cognitively and sometimes systemically.

It’s the same for us all as we pursue something new or different. The first time is often a bust unless you happen to be a savant or just darn lucky. We fail.

We should be expanding the view of what is being measured beyond the immediate outcome to include the actual effort and what was learned in the process. Rather than a heavy-handed reaction when someone fails to produce the desired outcome, we need to pause, explore, coach, and encourage. When the baby goes for the roll and simply can’t make the flip, we cheer it. We don’t dump on it for being a pudge. We keep putting the object of its desire just far enough away that he wants to try again after taking in what he learned in the last attempt.

According to the research, the number of attempts was not a differentiating factor. The ultimately successful endeavors and the unsuccessful ones had roughly the same number of attempts. What made the difference was the learning that occurred in the face of failure and then how quickly the next attempt was made.

Dan remained steady in his “failure is not an option” stance. Rather than force the issue, I asked him if “tripping was an option.”

He paused for a while. I wondered silently how he would respond.

But he had come around. Tripping was an option, as long as you get back up and try again. Dan took it one step farther. He made a promise to the team that he would support and encourage them to push forward and risk the trip. When the trip happens, he’ll be there to help them back up in such a way that broke the cycle of “no news is good news.” He would cheer their efforts, help them stretch, and coach them to learn from the trip-ups.

Failure is an option after all. It’s how we grow.

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