Redbean - My work is about helping organisations change - for the better. And when we embark on any change program, personal or organisational, one of the first issues we have to come to grips with is the possibility of failure. Failure in the sense that you didn’t meet expectations, or you couldn’t sustain the change, or you implemented poorly or you just made some errors of judgement. That is failure is relative. You might have got close. You could be way off.
Rarely do we meet or exceed all our expectations so failure is always present in some form. What I have found from recent research is that how we prepare for and deal with failure is a critical element of any change program’s success. And how we do that is primarily a cultural response to the word itself, how openly we can discuss the concept and what normally happens when failure occurs.
Some cultures and many people avoid using the word failure altogether, as if it has some power over them. Words don’t have power, only their meaning.
The literal meaning of failure is that one has not achieved a standard or goal, set by either themselves or others, for whatever reason. So the literal meaning of failure is fairly rational but the personal meaning is probably always disputable (as is success) and depends on who is setting the benchmark.
So word or the act of failure is an emotional trigger and those emotions are tied to the consequences any perceived failure might incur - including the denial of the benefits that would probably come with success. Humans love to strive and we don’t like to lose. That makes sense. But to change we must accept risk.
Yet it is those consequences of failure that will probably define your success. Entrepreneurs have a mantra to “fail early and fail often”. That’s how we learn and as long as we do learn this philosophy works. Ask any toddler.
How hard we strive then is defined by the risk where the excitement of the reward competes against the fear of the consequences of failure. So what if we started to remove the fear of the word, meaning and consequences of failure from our lives, organisations and culture?
A recent phenomena, at least in the western world, is the official apology. I am always impressed when a CEO, politician or public servant can stand up in public and say “I/we stuffed up”. This new trend is improving the world and our organisations. Yet many still see it as a sign of weakness.
All cultures differ in their response to failure yet generalising is dangerous.
Unfortunately the alternative to open acceptance of failure in our work and organisations is still too prevalent - arse-covering occurs all the time and is relative, from white lies to outright cover ups.
Transparency and open discussion is the first step towards successful change. My first hint that I am in an arse-covering culture is when people are reluctant to do that. Ongoing dialogue around targets and understanding how we can learn and improve when we reach/miss them is the oil that lubricates the process of healthy change.
So I apologise for the cheap psychology lesson but I know I am going to spend a lot more time discussing the meaning, measures and consequences of success and failure before I start new projects in the future. A lot of organisational change fails and I am trying to understand why. But I think most of it is in our heads…
If this article has failed to meet your expectations… well, it wasn’t my fault!
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