To Action: Normalising Failure

This week, I have a question for you. When was the last time you truly failed? By this I mean gut wrenching, plate smashing, sleep destroying failure.

Has it been a while? Or perhaps it’s fresh and you are still sore from it? Either way, I bet you learned something valuable that you now share with others.

This is acute failure.

Acute failure is useful. We tend to create real behavioural shifts from it because we are often forced to. Acute failure is effective – but acute failure is expensive.

Interestingly, acute failure is what we often think about when we think of failure. So, when someone says to you that you should ‘embrace failure’, most of the time people tend to think of recovering better from acute failure.

But, what about the other type of failure? The subtle, everyday stuff. The comment that went over wrong at the meeting yesterday. The workshop that went 30 minutes overtime. The decision to buy fast food instead of bringing something pre-prepared from home.

Subtle failure is insidious, it adds up, but it doesn’t cause notable behavioural change. It lingers. Subtle failures hardly ever see the light of day. No reflection, no storytelling, no growth.

This is the stuff that often slowly undermines your teams unless you put preventative action in place to normalise these inevitable failures.

The great news is that it’s relatively easy to do.

Create a ‘failure session’ at the end of a day or week to provide the space and opportunity for your team(s) to expose their failures.  The agenda of a failure session typically looks something like this:

1)      Tell us all a story of something that went terribly wrong today/this week, and some quick advice for your teammates from that experience. (30-45 seconds max per person).

2)     Repeat for the next person.

The agenda isn’t ground-breaking, however it’s the follow-up activity that’s really powerful here. After the reflection point, write everyone’s failure and advice on a white board (or similar) that is visible to all for the following day/week.

Ensure the session is light-hearted, and that everyone gets a chance to share. However, a quick word of warning here. Do NOT ever let this session become a confirmation of failures or an opportunity to condescend and criticise. The space must be safe and fun.

Through the simple act of exposure, light-hearted storytelling and a little public accountability, failure becomes normal.

When failure is normal, openness increases.