Lining up to Fail?

No one aspires to fail.  Most people would prefer their name not be included in the story explaining a failure.

But, if you want to design new experiences, a unique product or a better way of working, failure is a reality.  Trying something new or different will inevitably result in missteps, challenges and failure.

You can play it safe and try to avoid failures by staying in the protected known space.  Or you can influence the kind of failures that might occur and how you and your organization respond to them.

In her book teaming*, Amy Edmondson identifies three types of failure:

  • Preventable failures – Failure in routine operations typically resulting from a deviation in process in a well understood activity.
  • Complex failures – Failure in complex operations typically resulting from a breakdown in a process or system (can occur when a task is too difficult or process is composed of many elements that can break down when a novel situation is encountered).
  • Intelligent failures – Failure in innovative operations typically resulting in areas where knowledge is less developed, experiments must be run to test ideas and gain new knowledge.

The idea of a continuum of failure can make it a lot easier to discuss failure and intelligent risk taking in your organization.  The categories make it clear that not all failures are the same.  Some should absolutely be avoided, but some failures are a key component of learning and developing expertise.

Preventable failures are the kind that occur in everyday activities – typos in member communications, oversights in scheduling and prepping for meetings, etc.  These generally happen when people are in a hurry or do not have the skills or insight to correctly execute an action.  These are avoidable.

Complex failures tend to happen when systems get so complicated and dense that one missed entry or oversight can result in a system not working.  These happen as we add steps, requirements or activities to systems (approval processes, meeting development, AMS systems, etc) and at some point they breakdown under the sheer weight of it all.  These failures we can work on, we can review systems to ensure they are manageable and that we have appropriate project management.

Intelligent failures occur when you step outside of your mastery space and innovate.  These happen when we test new ideas, when we experiment with new models or products.  These are smart failures.  Managed correctly these are the ones that can help you innovate and succeed.

You want to avoid preventative failures and even complex failures.  However, these will occasionally occur and how you respond to the situations impacts what people will be willing to take on.  A few things for you to consider:

  • Do you embrace the messenger?  You want people to identify problems that they see, so make it ok even expected that staff identify problems/challenges.
  • How do you encourage discussion? If you create space to question and discuss ideas, challenges and risk and listen you can learn from situations (and even identify issues before they become big problems).

Failure free is absolutely crucial in some industries – bridge construction, airplane building come to mind.  But, in associations we typically have wiggle room.  Experimenting and trying new things helps us to remain relevant, keep members engaged and attract smart staff.

Unfortunately, risk taking and failing aren’t openly embraced and celebrated in most organizations.  But these are critical considerations for leading associations in the competitive and evolving space we operate it.

So what can you do to encourage intelligent risk taking?  One of the first steps is fostering an environment that encourages smart risk exploration.  Here are a few things for you to consider:

  • How do your leaders encourage experimenting?  How do leaders encourage people to take on new/innovative activities?  How do you engage people in the desired activities and discussions? How do leaders step out of their comfort zone?
  • What are the perceived consequences of failure in your organization?  How do leaders respond?  How do colleagues respond?  What is the next assignment for the staff involved?  How do you talk about failures?
  • What do you reward?  Do you talk about small wins or only spectacular splashes? Do you celebrate people trying something new (even if it didn’t work just as you planned)?  Do you recognize people for making a difference for a member?

No one wants to fail.  But it happens.  So, create a place where failures are taken in stride, learned from and built on and you will likely find success and people who are willing to journey with you.

“To avoid failure is to limit accomplishment.” ~ Will Rogers

*teaming is a wonderful book exploring how organizations learn and innovate. I highly recommend checking it out.

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