Is Your Organization Ready to Fail?

Friday, February 2 2018

(Updated October 2022) – In the world of 21st century business, macho ideas like “failure is not an option” are often heard in the media. But is that really how organizations move forward at the lightning-fast pace required in today’s reality and is your organization ready to fail?

Much has been written about the importance of learning from failure. There is the oft-quoted story that it took Thomas Edison 10,000 failures to invent the light bulb. How far have companies come when it comes to putting in place policies that allow, even encourage, their people to fail?

In the academic world we know that this topic has been discussed over and over. We quote statistics from outlier companies such as Amazon, Coca-Cola, Netflix and Domino’s Pizza, but how do we apply this type of “failure think” when it comes to an average business. If you’ve spent your life building a business that supports employees, suppliers, and the community, failure doesn’t seem like a very good strategy.

In this article we ask questions that only a leader can answer; is your business ready to fail?

In May 2017, right after he became CEO of Coca-Cola Co., James Quincey called upon rank-and-file managers to get beyond their fear of failure, which had loomed over the company since the “New Coke” fiasco way of 1985. “If we’re not making mistakes,” he insisted, “we’re not trying hard enough.

As a business owner you may say to yourself; that’s great for a company the size of Coca-Cola with investors and massive financial reserves to backstop their failures. You might be working with a line of credit and accounts receivables that will barely keep you afloat for the next quarter. “I’m too small to fail!”

How do you apply “failure think” to an average-sized business?

In training for most critical roles – military, commercial air flight, heart surgery, simulators are used; they allow us to fail faster and more often without killing people. The added benefit is that you can accurately record what’s going on and better understand and learn from your failure. So how does an average business do that?

Brainstorming 2.0 Say the word brainstorming to most business owners and you often get a “you gotta be kidding” look. And in most cases their skepticism would be justified.

Traditional brainstorming pioneered in the 50’s by advertising executive Alex Osborn may work when highly skilled and well-trained professionals use it, but after all these years no academic studies have proven that it’s widely effective. Usually, the power dynamics of a typical business group get in the way. Typically, the most extroverted or powerful person will dominate the brainstorming session undermining its productivity.

Dr. Tony McCaffrey has created a groundbreaking brainstorming technique – brainswarming. To overcome the problem of multiple individuals arguing over their ideas he simply takes the talking out of the exercise.

Brainswarming uses a set of simple rules and structure. McCaffrey asks members of a team to quietly think about solutions to various areas of the problem, write down their ideas on Post-it notes and place them strategically on a whiteboard. Ideas flow more naturally and logically.

McCaffrey came by this breakthrough after observing the way insects leave clues for each other; they do not talk yet they can still be highly efficient. Studies show that Brainswarming can produce more ideas in 15 minutes than Brainstorming can in 60 minutes!

This is one technique for simulating or testing your business ideas before you make serious investments in them. You can fail in a safe environment. So why don’t more companies do this?

How Can Your Company Fail Better?

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings worried that his fabulously valuable streaming service had too many hit shows and was canceling too few new shows. “Our hit ratio is too high right now,” he told a technology conference. “We have to take more risk…to try more crazy things…we should have a higher cancel rate overall.”

Here are the questions that only you as a leader can ask when it comes to understanding how much you embrace failure in your company:

  • Do you openly encourage debate and criticism?
  • Are new ideas welcomed?
  • Is there a system for testing new ideas?
  • Do you give awards to employees who fail?
  • What incentives exist for innovation?

Consider how your organization could establish such a culture, use your imagination, try some brainswarming. Some of the most successful companies in the world take advantage of failure so why shouldn’t yours –  fail well.