Simon Terry

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The Normative Value of Failure Comes from Your Next Act

Embrace failure. Fail fast. Fail small and early. Everyone has failures. Few failures are fatal. 

Despite all the good advice about failure, people find it very hard to sit comfortably with failure. When outcomes matter and achievements are celebrated failure is often a disappointment regardless of the amount of official imprimatur. Failure attracts a whole lot of personal and cultural baggage. This is a significant issue when willingness to risk failure is a large part of an organisations ability to adapt.

Reading The Pirate Organization by Durand and Vergne gave me a somewhat different perspective on failure. Noting that many pirate organisations were short-lived and easily defeated by the forces of the state, Durand and Vergne still noted that pirate organisations helped establish new norms for international trade and even the way organisations worked. Pirates showed where states were weak, where trade was broken and where traditional organisations needed to become more agile and adapt. Their thesis is these fragile and often failing pirate organisations are a critical part of the process by which sovereign states and capitalist organisations adjust to new territories of economic endeavour.

Failures Create Norms Too

Projects that end in failure can play a critical role in defining norms in an organisation in a similar way. They also set norms that shape future activity as well. Failure draws human attention and with that attention there is a chance to influence the way that people perceive culture – the how we work around here expectation. Critically culture is an expectation of how we will interact. It is shaped more by what you do about failure than what you say.

Failure has a big influence because the activity that follows failures sends signals that shape people’s perspective on a few key elements of organisational activity:

  • People worth supporting: How do you treat those whose projects fail. Give them the plum choice of the next project. Support them to learn what they need to learn to make their next efforts more successful. Whatever you do, don’t pretend the failure didn’t happen. They know it did. Hiding it loses the lessons and the uncertainty of silent treatment can be worse for people involved than blame. 
  • Purposes worth achieving:  The surest way to signal that a purpose is important, is shared and is worth achieving is that people persist after a failed attempt and start developing new ways to achieve the goal based on the lessons from the failure.
  • Problems needing fixes: Failures often highlight problems in supporting areas, systems or processes that need attention. This is how lessons are revealed by a chaos monkey. Whether or not people are prepared to learn and adapt to remedy these problems following failure is a major signal of the culture of an organisation. Do nothing and you can’t expect anyone else to care for those issues.
  • Ways worth working: Failures often take down more than just a specific objective or a specific project. Small specific failures in organisations can be used as a weapon to sabotage wider transformations, particularly ones that change the way an organisation works. We’ve all heard some version of the refrain of the cynics “How can they succeed in the whole organisation if they can’t get their first pilot to work?” Whether an organisation persists, adapts or abandons a new way of working following a related failure sends a critical signal.

Norms Come From Actions. Not Posters.

You are going to struggle to convince people that you love and desire failure. The achievement orientation in your organisation culture will work against you all the way. Hiring a few change agents will help show tolerance and foster some adaptation but it won’t necessarily make failure acceptable.

Take down the posters encouraging people to risk failure. Show them instead how you act after failures happen. That moment is when you get to signal what matters to your organisation in terms of purposes, people and processes.


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