I’m not good at incompetence. Not in me nor in anyone else. It’s useful in the sense that it leads me to have high standards for me and others, and allows me to go after the outcome with passion and conviction. It’s entirely unhelpful when it tips over into driving, striving and judgement of those on my team. Henry Ford said, that “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” What a profound opportunity. To begin again. To try again. To be afforded the confidence, the influence, the resources and latitude to try again.
Every leader must prepare themselves to try again and to allow others to try again. Not necessarily in the face of any legal, moral or ethical violations. But in the face of growth, progress, learnings, and development. We must learn to lead from a place of failure in leadership and reframe it so it is ‘intelligent failure’ and we shape lessons, learning, and leverage from it.
In almost every leadership keynote I give, I introduce the idea of VUCA. A military term coined to explain the environment in which we are often required to make decisions.
V – Volatility
U – Uncertainty
C – Complexity
A – Ambiguity
Leadership feels increasingly complex, and the world we’re making decisions in also. The market seems to be volatile, the future behaviour of customers feels uncertain. The pace of technological change is complex, and what is on or over the horizon is ambiguous at best. It’s in THIS very context we lead to the best of our abilities, knowing that for a good portion of the time we’re preparing, delivering and servicing our team, clients, stakeholders and customers with 100% of our abilities, and getting it right 70% of the time. Maybe.
When we need to get it right in leadership ALL the time. I’ll rephrase, When did I need to get it right in leadership ALL the time? What happened to the art of reframing setbacks and failures in the context of lessons, learning, and leverage?
In the 2011 HBR article “Failing by Design” Rita Gunther McGrath says that, “We don’t design organisations to manage, mitigate, and learn from failures…. organisations are profoundly biased against failure and make no systematic effort to study it.”
And to be fair, failures can be catastrophic. They can waste time and money, they can damage trust and confidence, that can reduce brand confidence and positioning. It’s costly to be on the other side of failure. And, most of the time, failure is a product of commission (something we did that messed up) or omission (something we failed to do) as part of our regular work responsibilities.
McGrath introduces the idea of “Intelligent Failure” coined in 1992 by Duke Universities Sim Sitkin. She quotes, “An alternative to ignoring failure is to foster ‘intelligent failure.’ If your organisation can adapt the concept of intelligent failure, it will become more agile, better at risk-taking and more adept at organisational learning.”
The Art of Intelligent Failure Model:
To be intelligent in the face of failure, you need to have three fundamental pillars in place that shape the WAY you intend to face the apparent failure of the situation. They are:
- Responsibility – Everyone involved owns everything they did (or didn’t do).
That means not making excuses or blaming anyone or anything.
- Learnings – The emphasis is on what did we learn.
That means working out what happened, why and what you can do about it immediately.
- Progress – There is a forward facing focus from everyone involved.
That means choosing to focus on what you can change, grow and develop for next time.
You will fail. Your team will fail. Part of your strategy or culture may fail. You will need to lead yourself out of failure. You will need to lead your team and organisation out of failure. To do that will require three commitments, they are:
- Purposeful Reflection – Where responsibility and learning connect.
Create an environment for a nameless and faceless debrief. Be brutally honest about the facts, the outcome and the cost, yet remain optimistic at what might come from this. (Attribution: Stockdale Paradox by Jim Collins)
- Specific Upskilling – Where learnings and progress become real.
Make the changes you make deep and directly related to the lessons learned. Do not shy away from the discomfort of the challenges that failure represents, rather, leverage off it to make better leaders of you all.
- Disciplined Perseverance – Where responsibility and progress take action.
Leaders have a short view, and a long view. The short view will respond to the emergencies fast and immediately. The long view will develop people, strategy and culture over time. Shaping each one of them into a force of good for your team and organisation. Stay the course, believe in better, and in the midst of the challenges stay true.
Failure isn’t final. It CAN be an opportunity to begin again, more intelligently. Leaders that have framework for making sense of failure, learning lessons from failure, becoming better from failure, and leading more wisely from failure can the VERY thing that initiates your success in the future.
This is for leaders. I am for leaders.