That’s right, you read that correctly. For far too many years, failure has been stigmatized, and any sign of a business miscalculation or failure has been met with feelings of personal shame and fear of discipline. This is one of the primary reasons why there is a culture of complacency and strong inertia facing change in many organizations.

In our eyes, not fighting the fear of failure within their organization is a severe misstep on the part of many leaders. Leaders often want their teams to come up with new ideas that have the potential to move their company forward, and new efficiencies to reduce costs, but they do not entrust those closest to the problems (the would-be problem solvers) with the support they need to feel safe if they miscalculate or their idea is not instantly successful.

Why, might you ask?

We are Wired for Fear

Our brains are neurologically hardwired to look for and avoid danger. It’s a carryover from our days as hunter-gatherers, and it shows up throughout our organizations. We see it when we work with organizations. On one hand, you have the fear of those closest to the problems, often those at the bottom and edges of the org chart. They fear making a mistake that costs them their job and label them with a scarlet letter within the industry.

Meanwhile, middle management fears that their job security and upward mobility will be put in danger by them not meeting their metrics due to their team’s new focus on innovating versus having their full attention on the activities that they as middle management are judged on.

Those middle managers believe that if their people have a license to break things in the name of building something better, they may create fires that they, as the boss, will have to put out. This encompasses both a fear of the unknown risks and a fear that they will have to do significantly more work with no upside. The fact of the matter is that it is easy for middle management, those who often have the most influence over innovation, to feel like there is only a downside with their people potentially doing something that affects profit and loss and thereby drawing a spotlight on them as that person’s boss.

If it comes down to giving up the warmth that accompanies a positive organizational spotlight for innovating, in service of avoiding the negative spotlight that can place your livelihood in jeopardy if your team breaks something that impacts the business, many mid-level managers will feel that it is worth it to stay in the dark.

So how do you de-risk failure?

Create a safe and supportive environment to report failure.

Blame shifting happens at work and there becomes a lack of transparency when people feel a need to slide their failures under the rug. Create a space where people can safely open up about their failures in the workplace, and then handle those failures before they become a bigger beast to deal with. Make your team feel comfortable telling you when something goes wrong and support them through having a conversation with them about what they’ve learned and what they will do next time they are in a similar situation. Celebrate learnings.

Instill Due Diligence

Equally important, you as the leader need to work with your managers to develop their ability to teach their teams to fail responsibly. That means:

  1. First, exploring and mapping out who all is impacted by any change to the process, service, or business function in question. They should look both upstream and downstream, and find out what functionality they absolutely need to ensure it does not inadvertently disrupt their job.
  2. Next, understanding and accounting for everything that could potentially go wrong through conversations with all stakeholders. This is incredibly important because the best problem to have is one that has already been accounted for.
  3. Finally, make sure everyone is on the same page and preparing vigorously for all possible scenarios.

Learn and radiate.

Once something breaks, it is an opportunity to both learn from it, and then share those lessons across the entire organization so that the company as a whole is smarter for it. This can be implemented by first creating a method or mechanism to share lessons learned. That may take the form of a weekly forum, a Slack channel, a special place in the intranet, or a reporting or meeting structure that allows for those who have tried new things to present their department’s findings.

Next, encourage teams to “break things” intelligently. Create backups, and have at least a few people in place to help in the case that something goes wrong. Help those innovating develop solutions if things go wrong, as well as capture the entire process and outcomes. This goes hand-in-hand with the most important component which is applying a scientific method-like approach to extracting the most possible information from each micro-failure.

Each time the hypothesis did not match what ended up happening, the teams should be able to understand why and adapt. Then there should be a way to radiate the lessons learned throughout the organization, and reward that department’s leadership team for doing the extra work required to innovate.

Realign with your Organization’s vision.

Many failures are rooted in a lack of clarity on the brand vision and priorities. If leadership is unclear about brand vision or they’re not accurately communicating it to employees, the employees have a higher chance of making mistakes when it is time to prioritize one thing over another. Ensure your people understand your overarching vision, and what the non-negotiables are.

What happens if you fail?

Jillian Michaels the well-known award-winning personal trainer, businesswoman, and media personality can often be heard reciting the following quote to those she was motivating to do more than they thought they could:

“If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough”

If your people are afraid to fail, they will not have the courage to succeed when it comes time to do more than anyone thought possible. Failing is a byproduct of re-evaluating if there are better ways of doing things, and then taking action steps to explore what those better ways might look like.

At Celerity, we believe that your approach to failure will have a significant impact on your culture, ability to innovate, and nimbleness within the market. Reach out to discuss how to implement a strategy that positions your business for continued success.