Twitter is littered with quotes that celebrate it; CEOs talk about it as part of their culture; the start-up world is obsessed with it. What is this incredibly captivating “thing”? Failure. The question remains: “Does this idolization of failure hold true in the real world?”
The day-to-day reality of millions workers is that failure is not something that is rewarded in the hallowed halls of corporate America. CEOs are not rewarded by Wall Street for failing to reach financial forecasts, managers are not rewarded for failing to meet sales quotas and healthcare professionals are not rewarded for failing to diagnose diseases correctly. Workplace reality is fundamentally disconnected from our glorification of failure. Employees are not paid and incentivized based on their failures. In the real work-world, failure gets you fired, obliterates bonuses and takes promotions off the table. What’s worse is that standard performance review frameworks only focus on and reward success. If an employee is not reaching their stated goals (read: they are failing), the first step is for a manager put together a “performance incentive plan,” which is more often than not code for the 90-day exit plan. None of these real-world outcomes applaud failure the way it is portrayed in the business media.
If we insist on celebrating failure as a path to individual growth, corporate innovation and competitive advantage, then we need to change how we hire, train, evaluate and incentivize all levels of the organization. Additionally, we need to clearly define the types of failure we will (and will not) reward. For example, Scott Anthony in When Failure Is Intolerable cites three types of failures that don’t deserve applause:
- Failure due to lack of transparency.When a project falls apart because someone hid information or misled others. Failure is only acceptable when the project was done with good intentions.
- Failure to gather and use data. Failure can be avoided by doing some simple research: asking target customers for input, reading business cases and looking at competitor’s efforts. Take the time to do the due diligence.
- Failure to make a decision based on research versus experience. Some things are unknowable without real-life experiments. Theory only goes so far – create a prototype or conduct an experiment that will give you data to help guide and inform.
It’s time for the business world’s veneration of failure to manifest itself in measurable, tactical and practical ways. Let’s first start by clearly defining — and canonizing in employment agreements and review processes — the failures we will reward. Over the next few weeks, Talentedly will be gathering data, case studies and best-practices on failing successfully. Join the conversation by emailing us, Tweeting #TLYFailingSuccessfully or posting your thoughts and experiences on our Facebook pag.