People hate ‘failing’ and will do everything not to associate with perceived failure. I suppose, failure takes something away from people and as such we hate it. The usual human response to failure is: to deny, hide, repackage, massage, or simply disregard failure.
Failure management or avoidance gets more pertinent when it comes to organisations. In a world ruled by cut-throat competition and survival of the fittest, organisations whether private sector, government or charity dislike failure. There is so much at stake when organisations fail, that it is not unusual to see individuals, systems, and processes associated with failure cleansed or fired. When failure imposes itself on organisations, they respond differently, and many times harshly: i.e. reprimand of the failed; PR spin doctors ‘cleaning up’ failure by distorting facts; simply hide facts; the better ones may accept failure in secret and fix it behind curtains.
Despite all the above hate and fear, failure can enhance organisational effectiveness. Both people and organisations can use failure and its consequences to become much more effective at what they do and how they do it. I am mindful that to convince both people and organisations to embrace failure and its ‘good’ side, requires me and you to put a strong case forward.
Let us fast forward to the concept of ‘fail-safe’. So what is this fail-safe thing? A system or plan that comes into operation in the event of something going wrong or that is in place to prevent such an occurrence.
If we apply the above ‘fail-safe’ academic definition to organisations and people, ‘fail-safe’ manifests when: organisations and people embrace ‘failure’ as part of their cultural disposition. Organisations and people create spaces for experimentation, and ensure to accompany the experimentation with enabling systems (the plans that come into operation if failure happened). In addition, they accept that creating space to experiment however risky, is critical for their own learning and overall effectiveness. Well, sounds very simple, does it not? It is like: embrace risk, create space for the risk takers to work, support the risk takers, take a lesson or two from their failure if any, and you are a ‘fail-safe’ organisation or individual. Others could say, this sounds too simplistic, linear, if not boring.
I agree that ‘fail-safe’ culture institutionalisation is not that simple. People and organisations follow the unwritten law of ’goal setting, achievement, & reward’. This unwritten human law is built around a culture that appreciates ‘order and certainty’ and for keeping the order and delivering results, organisations and people reap rewards. If you visit a company, you are likely to discover that it has shareholders that have set an annual Return on investment (ROI) goal. In the development sector (charity), you come across projects that are doing all they can to eradicate poverty, but boxed in logical frameworks, that are time-bound, and with outcomes cast in stone. People are not any different. We love to define our goals in an environment of certainty and when achieved, we all rejoice. On the other hand, people facing failure react adversely i.e. every time we see uncertainty or experience turbulence, we do things like vote the government out of power, become more aggressive, etc. Eco-systems around us are built on a foundation of certainty, planning, and achievement. It looks like people and organisations will not embrace failure.
Yet, an increasingly turbulent and interconnected global eco-system, has forced failure on both people and organisations. We just cannot turn our backs on failure. There is so much failure in the world today, that organisations and people that opt to put their heads in the sand on the issue shall die. Other than die, I hope to convince you to build a culture of proactively managing failure into your life if you are human or value-chain if you are an organisation.
Why embrace a ‘fail-safe’ culture?
- ‘Effective’ learning comes from failure. Take your time and compare a lesson from your many ‘successes’ vs. one from your few ‘failures’. Explore which lesson has outlived the other and is likely to get inculcated into your mind or organisation value system. Because both people and organisations have a natural tendency towards what is ‘ordered and precise’, lessons from success are common and known to all. Such lessons have a tendency to dilute than add to people and organisation value creation. Yet, lessons learnt from ‘failure’ are unique and bring significant value proposition to people and organisations. Because many don’t pay enough attention to the ‘disordered and unclear’ with all its consequences plus learning, it is a unique and usually unforeseen factor in people and organisation value creation. Let us take a human example. If you have ever run a race and tripped, fell to the ground and injured yourself, you are likely to be more careful the next time you race. Those that have never tripped are likely to trip and create an opportunity for you to beat them at the race – that simple!
- If we all agree that both organisations and people are not perfect and that failure is part of life, then ‘accepting + managing’ failure should bring harmony within self and organisation. It is after all not bad to fail, and when we do, we can eagerly look forward to the lessons. Organisations that don’t embrace a ‘fail-safe’ culture are like prisons where employees hate going when they wake up in the morning. On the side of people, they have prisons running inside their brains and body, and such people only hate themselves. We have to stop this desecration of society and humanity in the chase of order and certainty.
- If the value proposition ‘fail-safe’ brings to the organisation value chain is not in question, then any effective organisational staff development strategy cannot avoid paying attention to ‘failing and the learning out of that’. In encouraging staff to push the limits of experimentation, arises splendid individual staff learning and personal development. Those that bother reading HR generational trends will know that the current generation of youth, does not want jobs that place them in boxes. They want the freedom to experiment, learn, and the continuous improvement that comes with that. HR practitioners should explore how to build ‘fail-safe’ culture into their organisation value chains
- Some of the world’s most useful and practical products have come out of ‘failure’ and the learning out of that. You have all heard about products that have changed the world, yet were created out of an accident. 3M post-it notes, the Velcro on shoes and clothing that we all have come to take for granted, are examples of the power of failure in product development
How to build organisations that are ‘fail-safe’
While not many organisations I meet are ‘fail-safe’ or even ‘fail-safe aware’, the good news is that ‘fail-safe’ organisations can be created. I outline below the elements needed to create a fail-safe organisation or people:
- Organisation culture formation starts with belief. Belief emanates from individuals like you and me; that buy into a particular philosophy and its value addition. In order to create an organisation that embraces a ‘fail-safe’ culture, you need staff at organisations and people in society, with a particular skills profile. Staff that embrace ‘fail-safe’ thinking are: inquisitive, challenge the status-quo a lot, are critical, take risks, shall stay the course despite all talk, pressure, and attempts by others to pull them down.
- ‘Fail-safe’ organisations have leaders that accompany ‘fail-safe’ practices. Leaders that accompany ‘fail-safe’ culture at organisations exhibit certain habits: will publically declare their encouragement and tolerance for experimentation and the results of it positive or negative; shall reward risk taking and praise those that take risk; and shall build such practices into the strategy and value chain of the organisation.
- ‘Fail-safe’ monks are not always liked by the establishment, especially those individuals in organisations whose power and survival is threatened by such practice. ‘Fail-safe’ leadership accompaniment calls for deliberate identification and protection of those that occupy ‘fail-safe’ spaces in organisations. ‘Blind-spotted’ by the human liking for order and certainty, the ‘fail-safe’ monks can be left exposed, and with little option but to ‘mute’ their intentions or even quit the organisation.
- ‘Fail-safe’ practices should inform organisational Human Resources strategy. For example, if an organisation wants to be a real champion of ‘fail-safe’ practices, then: risk-taking should be part of its staff core competencies. Staff that embrace risk should directly be rewarded ($) for that and those that don’t, ‘de-rewarded’, including not qualifying for promotions.
- Organisation value-chains are enablers of ‘fail-safe’ monks. Creation of internal learning labs, be it physical places to learn from or processes and time to reflect on failure; creating a culture of feedback that is empathetic, respectful, and non-threatening are all enablers to ‘fail-safe’ monks
- ‘Fail-safe’ organisations and people are like someone who earns a monthly salary but plays the lottery anticipating that one day, they will win millions. These organisations and people know how to keep the traditional show on the road i.e. keep your core business running and profitable, but at the same time experiment and learn. Some may call it a gamble or bother, not at all. It is an art that organisations and people need to learn and perfect.
The killers of ‘fail-safe’ monks i.e. the naysayers of the fail-safe paradigm:
Having a ‘fail-safe’ culture at an organisation or even at an individual level is one thing, and acceptance and support of it by all at the organisation or society is another. There are individuals and in some instances whole-cultures, that undermine any attempts at creating ‘fail-safe’ organisations. These manifest in certain behaviours some easy to spot, others very subtle, and extremely hard to eliminate. Naysayers of ‘fail-safe’ practices may exhibit the characteristics below:
- Trash what others think and do, in the guise of being the experts.
- Extremely ‘political’ individuals and ruthless-survivors that have mastered the art of survival with or without substance
- They create safe havens within organisational ecosystems, mostly operating under the radar, and running their show within a much smaller but lucrative eco-system. In this under the radar eco-system, dissent is not tolerated. New ideas are only good if they are ‘handed over’ to the eco-system king/queen or else, they are likely to be trashed as not good enough
- Leadership that is driven by ‘order and certainty.’
- Away from individuals, giant ecosystems driven by compliance and policing culture. Civil service is a good example.
My take away: ‘failure’ is a powerful tool for organisational value creation, yet not very obvious to the naked eye. Do you have enough ‘fail-safe’ monks in your society or organisation and are you looking out for them when recruiting plus protecting them?