I was shocked recently to read a piece by Major General Mick Ryan covering the pretty spectacular failure of his first year in Defence. The story of a young man stepping out on his own for the first time and not quite nailing it isn’t, of itself, surprising; what shocked me was the response of the wise general that gave him a second chance (if you haven’t read the story you can find it here).
I am fascinated by the power of failure to promote growth, for both individuals and organisations, yet it is something that makes many high performers uncomfortable. It shouldn’t. Failure is an exceptionally potent learning tool, and it is a necessary component of any fast-paced and innovative organisation. But how do we as leaders embrace this culture of using failure to grow? How can we emulate Major General Day and embrace the second chance?
Openness and Communication
For a start, be open about your failures: communication is critical, and it starts from the top. One sure-fire way for small misses to turn into disasters is by hiding them away until it’s too late. To counter the desire to hide our organisation’s failures, we need to regularly communicate our personal mistakes and lessons learnt within our workspace. By demonstrating that it’s ok for us to fail, it’ll become clear that it’s ok for our subordinates to fail too, and this positive modelling will demonstrate how to fail constructively.
This idea of ‘constructive failure’ can be enhanced by making individuals comfortable with the concept through the implementation of individual and group self-reflection on failure. This can be enacted in numerous ways. In the last few years, I have used regular performance counselling to institute a strategy suggested by Joe Byerly From the Green Notebook. In this method, a number of simple questions are used consistently throughout the reporting period; many of them revolve around failure as a learning tool. One question asks the individual to, “highlight 3 times you took a smart risk that ended in failure. What did you learn, how did you share the lessons, and what could I have done to assist?” While this line of questioning initially makes people squirm, with practice and consistent application this level of coached self-reflection brings about meaningful individual and organisational growth.
Secondly, remember it’s better to fail fast than fail slow. Our teams are inevitably going to fail at some point. It’s much better that this happens early, and often enough to stimulate the necessary growth, rather than when we are months into a planning cycle or training pathway. As leaders, it’s important that we recognise when our people are trying something new and foster an environment where they can fail and iterate rather than fail and stagnate. This means accepting risk, but it also means ensuring that we are not governed by tempo, and resisting organisational pressure to push forward at any cost. One means through which to achieve this is the implementation of a spiral strategy. This requires prototyping new ideas and progressively committing resources with more stringent assessment criteria in order to demonstrate development of new ideas, whilst leaving room for learning on the fly.
Don’t be afraid to fail big
Finally we shouldn’t be afraid to fail big. In training environments where the perceived risk far exceeds real risk, we should let plans fail often and on as large a scale as possible. We need to let war stoppers truly be war stoppers during major exercises, and design exercises with the space to allow failures to play out. Gone must be the days of Blue Force always winning the war. If Red Force whips your organisation, be humble in defeat, lick your wounds and work out how they did it, so it doesn’t happen again when it counts. Training should not be about box ticking with a particular focus on one aspect of our force. As training complexity increases, so too should simulation of the emergence of war be allowed to play out and adaption to the chaos reign supreme.
There is, however, a single significant caveat to encouraging constructive failure in order to permit cultural growth, and that is accountability. Much like a mission command culture, embracing failure means accepting greater risk. This is undoubtedly an uncomfortable situation for any leader and needs to be balanced against the positive growth and learning potential that failure brings. Herein lies the art. Failure can’t become an excuse for being bad at the basics. Harnessing failure as a tool for growth should exist in the realm of pushing boundaries, not as justification for failure to meet expected standards. The responsibility that comes with bearing arms and leading soldiers is too great to tolerate sloppiness and a lack of accountability. Similarly, it is crucial to recognise that not everyone will have the maturity to be accountable for their mistakes and grow from their failures. Such individuals may need to be managed via the more traditional tools of a directive approach and performance checks and balances.
For a long time failure has been a dirty word; however, senior military leaders are communicating that this should not be the case anymore, and we should stand up and listen. Whilst failure should not come at the expense of maintaining standards, it is an incredibly powerful learning tool that we should be enabling wherever possible. We need to start being open about our failures, fail fast and fail big, in order to harness these failures as a key element of a growth culture. We can no longer fail to learn because we haven’t learnt to fail.
Nick Alexander is a current serving Combat Health Officer and Associate Editor of Grounded Curiosity.
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