Go Ahead and Fail—It Could Be the Way to Succeed

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by Cyndee Miller

Talk all you want about the “critical elements to business success.” What people—including me—really want to hear about is failure. We want the spectacular flameout. And we want all the gory details. Some of this is just human nature. But it’s more than that. Tales of failure are also wildly educational. Would the story of Steve Jobs be nearly as compelling—or informative—if he wasn’t fired from his own company? I think not.

Yet as a reporter, I know most people don’t like to discuss their mistakes. So imagine my delight when former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo told attendees at PMO Symposium® that failure isn’t just an option—it’s an option that should be exercised frequently.

As one must suspect, that shift has to start at the top. “By getting in front of your team and pointing out when you make a mistake, they start to get it and will start taking more courageous risks,” he said.

That will most likely lead to some dissent, which Mr. Costolo also said it’s perfectly acceptable.

“The goal isn’t social cohesion, it’s to get to the right answer,” he said. “Open debate toward the right answer is a good thing.”

But once a decision is made, Mr. Costolo expects the full team to fall in line.

The contrarian in me loves to see common business wisdom upended. But his advice also just seems inevitable in today’s fast-paced, disruption-happy environment.

Slow and steady doesn’t win the race. There’s a fresh urgency to execution and that means leaders need to be willing to try new things.

“In any organization as it grows, the default answer to any question increasingly becomes no,” he says. “What we developed inside Twitter was a common saying: bias to yes. There have to be many paths to yes inside the company for any idea. Any function is not allowed to tell a different function, ‘You’re not allowed to do that.’”

Taking Mr. Costolo’s lead, Twitter slashed the time it took to get new ideas in front of users from months to days.

At that pace, mistakes happen. But what we’re hearing over and over again at symposium is that that’s okay. In the very first session, self-proclaimed project management nerd Jonathan Gilbert, PMP, challenged project leaders to think fast, learn fast, fail fast.

Jan Musil, chief product owner at SAP America, took it one step further, saying project leaders shouldn’t even think of a project misstep as a failure. It’s continuous improvement.

How are you helping your teams fail, er, I mean, “continually improve”?

Posted by Cyndee Miller on: November 13, 2018 09:11 AM | Permalink

Comments (18)

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Thanks for this post

An excellent information! Thanks for sharing!

This is true for those instances where the person or team takes the opportunity to study and learn from their mistakes. As we tell our children, one cannot expect to do something perfectly the first time.

I've often thought that many individuals, organizations, and businesses hold themselves back due to an adversity to failure. Of course, the ones known for innovation and high achievement, often better understand that failure is just part of the equation for success.

You have no idea how much this reasonates.....

So true, great post. I think it takes time to learn how to let your team fail instead of taking over and preventing the mistake from happening. It is hard. But people learn the most by their own experience and it is not possible to pass that just by talking about what would happen if...

Failure is "an option that should be exercised frequently". True.

good discussion...I get the concept...still, at the end of the day we need to succeed....right? We can't tell our clients.....hey great news we failed 6 times last year!

We learn a lot from our failure, more than our success.

In that sense, an American comedian once quoted: "Common sense comes from good experience, and much of it comes from bad judgment." And he could not be more right.

Good for innovative organizations but in traditional orgs like the finance sector it may not be the best option.

Encouraging innovation through risk taking is the way to succeed. Learning from mistakes and failures is part of the process of continuous improvement.

Very true indeed, Agile speaks of fast failure, but in reality its not accepted at all. Long way to go to get accepted!!

Very good article. Failures can benefit in 2 ways. There can be a pivot to the path taken and also that team learns about the failure & it can be expected to take measures that will avoid the same in future

Very practical and interesting one.
Thanks for sharing!!

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