Jo Geraghty


Failing Successfully

Date added: 05th May 2016
Category: Innovation Culture

How do organisations turn off the fear factor and make failure an essential element of an innovation culture

How do you cope with failure? More importantly perhaps, how do you cope with the fear of failure? It’s an interesting question and it’s one which can have profound implications on the way you act and lead not just in the workplace but across all sectors of your life.

Before we go on to examine the impact of failure in the workplace, let’s pause a moment and look at some of the reasons why you may be afraid to fail. And in the nature versus nurture debate, fear of failure can come down on either side. On the nature side, studies have shown that the fear of failure is a common trait for people on the Autism/Aspergers spectrum and this can lead to a reluctance to experiment or to step outside boundaries even for those with mild forms of the condition.

But the fear of failure is not simply something you are born with. Your upbringing, the way you interacted with fellow pupils in school or even previous experiences in the workplace can easily switch off the desire to experiment and switch on the fear factor. And that’s before we start factoring in other causes such as stress, lack of sleep, personal problems and so on.

None of this is good news for those who are looking to build a culture of innovation within their organisations. If you’re going to innovate you have to be prepared to experiment and you’re not going to be able to do that if you are afraid to fail.

So how do organisations turn off the fear factor and make failure an acceptable part of business life? Let’s face it failure is a negative word so the secret to success is to remove the stigma, either by transforming the meaning or by using alternative words and phrases. We talk about failure as a learning point, about positive lessons which we can gain from experimentation, or about charting new territories.

And because we don’t want anarchy we set boundaries and we make it clear that within those boundaries people are free to try, to investigate and to explore in order to find new or improved processes, products and services. Then we reinforce the feeling that it’s okay to innovate by changing process and pay and reward structures.

Most important of all we learn to lead in a way that promotes innovation and experimentation. We promote collaboration and discussion, we open up pathways and we praise initiative. Transforming organisational culture to one which is free to seek innovative solutions won’t necessarily happen overnight. Even with the greatest leadership, there will still be pockets of resistance to overcome and some individuals may need personal coaching in order to help them to transform their own attitude towards risk and failure. But once an organisation has learnt to fail successfully then it is well on the path towards business growth; providing excellent customer experiences from truly engaged employees who are prepared to innovate for success.

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