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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

Rethinking the concept of failure

Speak to your people about your own failures—not just in terms of how far you fell, but how you came back. That’s where the focus needs to be. It’s not about failing fast. It’s about learning fast.

Rethinking the concept of failure
[Sergey Nivens/AdobeStock]

My life experiences with failure started as a child. In sixth grade, I failed in math—dismally. But when I brought my test report home to my mother, she celebrated by popping a bottle of champagne. She said, “Now you know how to fail. Good for you!”

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She understood that the only way I would truly grow as a person was by failing—and by learning from that failure.

Of course, the most important part about failing is how you respond to it. Do you give up, or do you dust yourself off and try again? My mother encouraged me to do the latter, to improve one step at a time. I didn’t find immediate success in math, but with hard work, I managed to eventually score a D, then a C, and finally an A in my exams.

THE PROBLEM WITH STIGMATIZING FAILURE

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At school in Israel, if I didn’t score the marks I hoped for on an exam, I could take it as many times as I wanted. In the U.S., when a student fails a test, there’s usually no chance for them to learn from their mistakes and try again.

If we instill a fear of failure in children at school, we’re not teaching them about learning, only about grading. Worse still, it can create the perception that you need to be seen as perfect or correct in every instance. It allows no space to be human.

Conventionally, the concept of “failure”‘ means being unsuccessful, making mistakes, or not achieving your goals. By contrast, as an engineering student, I was taught to iterate often, and failing fast was encouraged.

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What if we applied this thinking in other ways to overcome perfectionism? What if we could put it to work to create more opportunities for employee growth, innovation, and retention?

THE ROLE OF FAILURE IN BUSINESS

In my own career, I’ve adopted a mindset of accepting—even embracing—my failures because I know they’ll make me a better, wiser leader. For example, in a former role, I once set KPIs that didn’t align across my different teams. The unintended consequence of this was that I created a divide between my teams and obstructed the flow of communication.

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From this experience—my failure—I learned the importance of sharing goals to avoid misalignment. Without experiencing that tough failure, I would never have become the effective team leader I am today.

Working with digital leaders teaches us how to leverage any challenges or friction they face as new opportunities. As long as you have the processes and the tools to achieve the right visibility and the speed for fast iteration, failure can become the best tool for success.

Fear of failure limits our ability to innovate. Conversely, when employees have permission to fail occasionally, they flourish.

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I want my team to be successful, but it doesn’t have to happen the very first time. I’d rather they make multiple attempts, earn their success, and learn along the way.

The outcome? My team takes more risks. More importantly, it transforms them into better team members. If you don’t fear failure, you have no need for a scapegoat when something goes wrong. You can take accountability for your actions and ideas. This helps build that collaborative and innovative environment we all strive for.

ENTREPRENEURS SHOULD LEAD—AND FAIL—BY EXAMPLE

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Every successful leader or entrepreneur has failed at one point or another. It’s part of the fabric of business and life. I believe that business leaders should be intentional about never cultivating a culture of fear in their organizations.

Speak to your people about your own failures—not just in terms of how far you fell, but how you came back. That’s where the focus needs to be. It’s not about failing fast. It’s about learning fast.

When you’re about to embark on a big project or new venture, have discussions with your team about how you might fail and how you’ll recover. What will you learn? How will you make sure you don’t repeat the same mistakes in the next project?

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Your message to them needs to be: “Go ahead, try out something new, and get creative with that idea. I appreciate that you’ll be entering uncharted territory, and you might encounter some treacherous ground. If that causes a temporary setback, well, that’s OK.”


Efrat is CMO at Quantum Metric, with extensive experience in tech leadership and customer-centric organization strategies.

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