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  • Writer's pictureBill Petrie

Getting Back on the Bike

Instead of avoiding failure, seek it out if you want to grow

From a very early age, the message of failure is driven into our subconscious: failure is bad; failure means you didn’t prepare enough; failure means you didn’t study as hard as you should have; failure means you are lazy or – worse – weren’t smart enough to begin with. All of this teaches that, more than anything, failure is something to be ashamed of and hidden from public view.

Those early experiences of shame are too deep to erase. As such, people continue to resist and reject failure because mistakes feel embarrassing regardless of what anyone says.

It’s easy to say that failure is an opportunity for growth, and speakers from every walk of life have sermonized on this for decades - including me. While this is a very accurate perspective, most people interpret that statement to mean that mistakes are a necessary evil. Mistakes and failures aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all.

It’s not about accepting failure with dignity and simply marching forward. The better and much more accurate interpretation is that failure is a manifestation of learning and exploration. People who don’t experience failure are making a far worse mistake: They are driven by the desire to avoid it.

Mistakes are an inevitable consequence of doing something new. As such, they should be seen as valuable assets, for originality would cease to exist without them. However, acknowledging this truth is not enough because failure is a brutal experience. Furthermore, our personal feelings about the embarrassment tied to mistakes tend to undermine the understanding of their worth.

Compare failure to riding a bike: it’s simply impossible to learn this skill without falling over a few times and, quite possibly, getting hurt. The key to learning to ride is to start on a bike that is as low to the ground as possible, strap on a helmet (along with elbow and knee pads) so the fear of getting hurt is minimized, and just go. When this mindset is applied to everything new that is encountered – in business and life – the negative connotation associated with making mistakes and failure is undermined.

How do you know if an organization has embraced an adverse view of failure? First, ask yourself what happens when a mistake is uncovered. Do people shut down and turn inward, or do they come together to unravel the cause(s) of the issue that might prevent failure going forward? In other words, are people asking, “Whose fault is this?” If so, the culture assails failure, which will stagnate innovation and growth. Even worse, the initial failure is often magnified by the spoken or unspoken search for a scapegoat and team members pointing fingers at each other.

In this type of culture – where failure is something to be avoided at all costs – people will consciously or unconsciously avoid risk. Instead, they will seek to repeat something safe that’s been “good enough” in the past, and their work will be derivative and stale. However, the opposite will happen if you can foster a positive understanding of failure.

The solution is as tricky as it is simple: from the top down, people must openly share mistakes and their part in creating them. Being open about problems is the first critical step in learning from them. While fear will always be part of the equation, this approach will loosen fear’s grip on people within the organization. No one wants to be responsible for something that fails. However, we must shift our thinking and realize that the cost of failure is really an investment in the future.

Like the inevitable falls that come with discovering how to ride a bike, you must get back on if you hope to master the skill and prevent future tumbles and spills.

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