Since 2008, Engineers Without Borders Canada (EWB) has published an annual “failure report” alongside its standard annual report. The failure report is full of examples of the risks employees took, and the trends and lessons they learned along the way.
In 2011, Ashley Good became “head of failure” for EWB, a Toronto-based organization focused on finding solutions to extreme poverty. She became responsible for putting out the best failure examples.
The next year, she started Fail Forward, a consulting firm that helps organizations adopt a culture of “intelligent failure.” The concept comes from an idea in order to find solutions to the most complex problems, people need to have a different relationship with failure.
“We live in this incredibly complex and ever-changing world that most of what we do have elements of failure within it,” Good tells Fast Company. It’s “not because we’re incompetent, but because the problems are constantly changing.”
Good explains that intelligent failure is not about celebrating or embracing failure, but about getting beyond the negative experience to maximize the lessons from it.
What stops our brains from effectively breaking down these lessons in hindsight? According to Good, it’s because most of us aren’t taught to fail productively. So when it does happen, we rely on our instincts to take over, which is often hardwired to react defensively. We put our guard up. We feel shameful. Our bodies physically slump and down and collapse. We panic.
“I’ve been working with a neuroscientist on understanding this and she’s been studying our brain on failure and talks about how in times of failure, [our brains] trigger a stress response so we get the sweaty palms, the stomach clenching, the shoulders pulling down, which is uncomfortable,” Good explains. “That sends a signal to our brain to get rid of that discomfort. All of this undermines our learning and our ability to look objectively at what happened.”
But if you don’t learn how to disassociate failure from shame, you won’t be able to make connections between different complex challenges and see ways to become more resilient in the future.
Good says the first step to failing productively is taking the time to reflect, learn, and adapt to past mistakes.
“There’s so much to learn, we simply don’t take time to reflect,” Good adds. “We’re taught to think ‘right or wrong,’ ‘yes or no’ when most of what we do have elements of both. And we tend to subscribe our successes to our own brilliance and our failure to external factors–good luck, other people, environment, whatever–when, in general, most of what we do is the result of our own brilliance and external factors.”
It is building this self-awareness that EWB decided to publish its failure report every year.
The next step is creating a space to innovate, change, and test out new ideas, but not be so risky that mistakes are detrimental to the organization. Leaders need to build a “culture where people know failure is going to be blameless, where they want to share their failure stories,” Good says. “You want your staff to know that they can test and experiment. They’ve got room to do that, but if they step outside of that sandbox, they’re putting the organization at risk. And everyone should know where that line is and have that discussion and know how that applies in their day-to-day work.”
The strongest organizations, according to Good, are those that can speak honestly about their mistakes, which results in a deeper understanding of recurring mistakes.
We all know that failure can’t be escaped, so why aren’t we using them as opportunities to see ways to become more resilient? Organizations that can embed this process into their culture will have fearless, smart risk-taking employees.
Now knowing the way our brains react to failure, the next time mistakes happen, Good suggests rewiring the brain by physically throwing your hands triumphantly in the air or shouting for joy.