Fail More!

We don’t fail enough. Sport teaches us this. Imagine learning to surf. You can’t learn to surf by sitting on the beach, nor can you learn by swimming out to the biggest waves and trying to surf – you’ll probably die. Instead, you learn the basics on the beach, then progress by attempting to surf small waves. After a number of attempts, you’ll get your first ride! A fantastic feeling. As your skill levels grow you will start to surf bigger waves. As you push yourself more and more, you’ll learn to fail more quickly and recover better, enabling you to make more attempts and so improve your skills. Eventually, you’ll be surfing beautiful waves having a sublime experience. Along the way you will have failed to surf waves many, many times. Whilst occasionally you will have wondered whether you would ever get the hang of it, falling off the waves was simply part of the learning process. Failure then, is at the heart of development and improvement in surfing.

Sadly, how different this is to business. In most large organisations there is some form of ‘performance management system’. Each year employees all play the same game. In order to get the bonus, objectives must be exceeded (failure is not an option). So, by reducing the objective downwards it becomes easier to achieve. It’s easier not to fail. At the same time, the manager needs his or her subordinates to set ambitious objectives in order that the manager can more easily meet their objectives. Somewhere in the middle of this tension lies a negotiated deal. A deal based on mediocrity. The paradox is that the very thing performance management systems are designed to do – drive up performance – is the very thing that constrains performance. After all, who promotes a failure?

If performance management systems existed in the 1800s, you could probably imagine the conversation between Charles Goodyear, the inventor of vulcanized rubber and his boss:

“Charles – I would like to talk to you about how much time you’re wasting on this rubber thing? In particular, I am concerned with your carelessness in spilling rubber mixed with sulphur and white lead on the stove [the failure that led to the discovery of vulcanized rubber]. This is a real health and safety issue. What do you really have to show for all these years of work?” And yet, without his preparedness to fail, we would not have developed vulcanized rubber when we did. Would cars be running on tyres today without Goodyear’s preparedness to fail? Perhaps the best example of an individual who has succeeded through failure is Steve Jobs and look at what he has given us.

The story of innovation and development is strewn with stories of success from failure, be it Post-it notes, Viagra, rubber, dry cleaning, raisins, stainless steel and penicillin. Failure is an important part of success. But it’s not failure that’s the problem, it’s fear of failure. Robert Schuller, an American preacher once asked the question “what would you do if you knew you could not fail?” This is an incredibly liberating perspective. Once you take the fear of failure away, what seemed an impossibility becomes possible. What performance management systems in business do is to exacerbate the fear of failure. The evidence is that performance management systems do not improve performance. It’s setting challenging goals that does.

Michael Armstrong, in his review of literature on performance management cites a study where drivers in a logging company were set challenging goals for the amount of wood loaded onto their trucks. Note this: No reward was offered for succeeding but equally, no punishment for failing either. Performance went up by 30% and has been maintained since. By taking away the fear of failure, impossible became possible.

Failing can be incredibly rewarding. 80% of an awesome and ridiculous goal is substantially greater than 100% of an achievable and realistic goal, and you never know, you might just make it all the way. I would like to pose  some questions to you. Thinking about your business:

* What would you do if you knew you could not fail?

* What are the major fears you have that prevent you doing this?

* How could you mitigate these risks?

Become a serial failure! It’s a lot more liberating and fun than being constrained by the need to succeed all the time!

Dominic Irvine © Epiphanies LLP 2012 All rights asserted

If you are interested in the benefits of being a failure read this and read more about setting goals here.  Read about our experiences with one of our clients here.