How leaders can turn a ‘risk-taking culture & failure’ into an asset

Many of you reacted to my blog last week: ‘It is not bad to fail’ with surprise, disdain, affirmation, and in some cases confusion. How can leaders ensure organisational effectiveness when failing at the same time? One of you had this as a response to the blog article: ‘….controversial facts to me….’

It is not bad to fail’ demonstrated to us all the good side of ‘failure’. Failure is not that demonic after-all and if leveraged effectively, can create value for organisations and individuals alike. The blog explored the philosophy of ‘fail-safe’, ‘fail-safe’ monks, the challenges plus solutions to a successful ‘fail-safe’ paradigm

Tinker & Tinker & Tinker

Tinker & Tinker & Tinker

This particular blog delves into my personal experience as a leader, in an emerging but firmly rooted, ‘fail-safe’ culture. As a leader and manager, it is safe to say that I love: tinkering, taking risk, challenging the status-quo, achieving outcomes but in the most efficient manner (call this SMART-effectiveness since we know you can achieve outcomes (effectiveness) without efficiency), survival of the fittest, getting the best out of people including the average, lean and mean operations, what else?

If you have a profile like above, you likely find it natural to constantly explore alternatives to the status-quo. Let us briefly discuss the politics of organisations and society. Questioning the status-quo, both at individual and organisational level, can get you into trouble, earn you ‘labels’ but also, success and respect. Predisposition to seeking effectiveness and efficiency in tandem (i.e. SMART-effectiveness) and the accompanying search for alternatives, is considered by some as wise and smart and by others as anti-establishment, cocky, and revolutionary. I come from a culture, where matters to do with ones intellect are left to God, after-all it is God that bestows it or not, on you. I can however, talk to the fact that those like myself that love questioning the status-quo are not anti-establishment, cocky, or revolutionary. We simply lead and go about our value-creation both at individual and organisational levels, with keen intellect. Never feel apologetic for the latter, that is what you are made of and even more important, it is fundamental to a successful ‘fail-safe’ culture and accompanying value-creation.

In last weeks blog I baptised ‘fail-safe’ believers, ‘fail-safe’ monks. Obstacles to a successful ‘fail-safe’-monk role are many, yet the thrill and sense of achievement for being true to the role, out-weight everything else. I wake up everyday asking what else organisations, individuals, and society can do, to be even more effective at value-creation. However, that is me and I suspect a few of you out there. But society and organisations are more than one individual and their brain. Effective ‘fail-safe’ cultures go beyond individuals and should outlive us. In very simple terms, we need followers to bring such paradigm to scale, the so called ‘fail-safe’ monks. We also need a number of other variables and I will get into that next.

My choice of x3 ‘MUSTS’ for a successful ‘fail-safe’ leader and organisation

Over the years I have explored and identified many elements that I believe a leader needs to build a strong ‘fail-safe’ culture at both individual and organisational level. While there are many elements at play, three (3) are ‘musts’ if leaders want to build an effective ‘fail-safe’ paradigm:

Vision and culture:

With strategic planning theory practically taught at all universities and smaller colleges, it is rare to find an organisation without a Vision and Mission. Unfortunately, strategic plans are designed and left to fossilise on shelves or computer hard disks.

Successful ‘fail-safe’ organisations define a Vision that embraces ‘fail-safe’ practices and values, and invest resources both human and financial, to institutionalise the vision. It is a leaders job to sell this Vision to the rest of the organisation and its stakeholders, ensuring they buy into it.

Some of the things I have done to try and institutionalise ‘fail-safe’ practices and culture, moreover in extremely conservative and at times ‘low-capacity to do the ordinary’ environments are:

  1. Use every opportunity to preach the need to think outside the box, not fear failure, take risk and try new things; learn from failure, as well as sharing good articles on risk taking and innovation. It is our job as leaders to preach and covert the many to our leaderly ways
  2. Reward ‘fail-safe’ thinking with praise, short-term assignments to lead on mission critical tasks, and promotion. This is a very effective way of encouraging and institutionilising behaviour
  3. Be the model of ‘fail-safe’ practices and if that is not your forte (which is not bad at all and you should be open about it), learn and also empower others even if junior, that posses the talent
  4. Those working for global conglomerates will know that the same organisation will have different sub-cultures that espouse completely different values and principles. Leaders that succeed in building a ‘fail-safe’ Vision and culture build internal alliances with sub-cultures that espouse the tendency to ‘risk-take’ and ‘learn’. This is not to disregard the diversity and synergy that comes with different sub-cultures in the eco-system. It only goes to emphasise the fact that Vision and culture-deepening happen seamlessly in ‘value-common’ than ‘opposing’ alliances. At times, leaders have to make these deliberate choices; it is part of the game.

People and competencies:

Now that you have the ‘fail-safe’ Vision and Culture embedded in the organisation, should you expect everything ‘fail-safe’ to fall in place? Certainly not, we all know that we need ‘competent’ human resources to deliver a specific Vision and ‘Culture’ at an organisation.

Over many years of tinkering with value chains, I have experienced three (3) generic types of staff in organisations. Not all of them are good at delivering ‘fail-safe’ culture.

  1. The Follower – this type of staff waits for instructions from above and shall do as told. Many graduates of the colonial education system in the Great Lakes region for example, are of this type. They have been taught to follow instructions, and even at very senior levels, they demand accompaniment from their seniors.
  2. The fuzzy intellectual – this type of staff is indeterminate, changes position at every meeting, wants to ‘appease’ those they perceive as superior, can be very difficult to supervise especially if they are senior and accountable for strategic tasks, they are full of talk but no action, and while extremely intelligent their very nature results in wasted-intelligence and unfulfilled potential.
  3. The risk-junky – this is the ‘fail-safe’ monk; they are observant and critical, won’t only question the status-quo but will also explore alternatives plus follow through on commitments to implement, they can at times appear anti-establishment, end up on stretch-assignment teams, and will bring to line managers advanced and not surprisingly, well thought through products. Creativity, quick and strategic thinking come naturally to them.

Leaders should nurture one (1) and three (3) types in order to build a successful and sustainable ‘fail-safe’ eco-system. Staff type one helps ‘keep the show on the road’ as organisations need a certain level of continuity to be viable. While staff type three will obviously support the work of one, but at the same, shall follow their instinct to tinker, create new value, and when they fail learn from the failure yet keep tinkering.

Leaders should get rid of staff type two the ‘fuzzy-intellectual’ or if at all possible, re-orient them towards one or three or a combination. The best staff in my experience, is the hybrid that combines types one and three, but this is rare pedigree.


Yes, as a ‘fail-safe’ leader you may have the Vision and culture plus right people, but not the systems and processes that facilitate work of the other two variables. Leaders do not achieve tangible progress on the ‘fail-safe’ continuum, if certain parts of the value-chain do not support such culture. Leaders need to ensure that value-chains:

  1. Have the right policies and practices – i.e. is the human resource policy explicit in defining the profile of a ‘fail-safe’ monk and how to target and identify them at recruitment? How are the ‘fail-safe’ monks rewarded?
  2. Have ’safe-spaces’ be it in process or physical, in which ‘fail-safe’ monks can excel at tinkering? It is enabling the development of internal communities of practice (CoP), but in this case, in the realm of experimenting/‘gambling’ and the learning thereof
  3. Have risk management, innovation, research, analysis in combination or solo, as independent functions within the organisation?
  4. One of the biggest challenges at orthodox organisations is to turn learning into products and services. Value-chains should build mechanisms that sign off on products and services for scaling and ensure their development is properly resourced and protected. There has to be a position responsible for this kind of stuff.

Leaders ought to be aware that the diversity and complexity of value chains make them fertile ground for all kinds of staff battles, smear, and innuendo. The pure follower will want to maintain order and will push for continuity and strict attention to the agreed goals. Pure followers can be myopic and divisive, in the eyes of the ‘fail-safe’ monk. The ‘fail-safe’ monk will push for keeping the status-quo but also trying alternatives that may appear useless now, but key to securing the future. The fuzzy intellectual footprint will appear in both camps, mostly creating confusion.

My take away: as a leader, the logic is simple. Resilience of organisations is achieved when you prepare today, for a future you may not know and that takes quite a bit of ’tinkering’

Categories: You, the Leader!

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12 replies

  1. This is a well thought disppsition of a kind of human capital on transition from a status squo approach to heterogemous one that is specifically innovative and optimistic.


  2. This is a well thought disopsition of a kind of human capital on transition from a status squo approach too heterogemous one that is specifically innovative and optimistic.



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