The Other "F" Word
March 30, 2015
There are many books about the role of failure in our lives and careers, but not one that prescribes a nuts-and-bolts formula to use it—until now.
The same can be said of what John Danner and Mark Coopersmith call The Other "F" Word—failure.
If used correctly, it can "turn a bad experience from a regret into a resource." Strangely, though there are many great inspirational books about the role of failure in our lives and careers, there is not one that I know of that prescribes a nuts-and-bolts formula for exactly how to do this in a simple, straightforward, and strategic way. Danner and Coopersmith remedy that with their new book. It's, as they say, A Book About a Topic Nobody Wants to Talk About, and that first talks about how we talk about it.
Because this process is so uncomfortable and fraught with potential political landmines in any company, systematizing it is important, and it is where the authors excel. They describe seven stages you must go through as an organization to use failure in a productive way: Respect, Rehearse, Recognize, React, Reflect, Rebound, and Remember. And they describe your role, from Straight Talker to Proud Storyteller in each stage. They give each stage a chapter, and wrap it up in true academic fashion by providing a Failure Value Report Card to "assess your own failure leadership 'grade' and your progress in making your organization more failure savvy." But perhaps I'm getting too far ahead here. So let's go back to the beginning, where the authors give us a "personal crib sheet" of key points:
- Failure matters. Why? Because we spend much, if not most, of our lives creating it, dealing with it, and trying to learn from it.
- Failure's like gravity. It's everywhere—a fact of life for every organization at every organizational phase, from startup to growing business and established enterprise.
- Failure is too often a taboo topic. That's why we call it the other F word. If you can't talk about it, you can't manage it, or learn from it. Take it out of the shadows.
- You've already paid for it, so use it. As a leader or team member, you can convert failure from a repeated regret to a strategic resource that can help you drive innovation, better engage your colleagues' real capabilities, and accelerate growth.
- Fear of failure is failure's force multiplier. It distorts the likelihood of failure and exaggerates its consequences. It is one of your most important challenges in getting your organization to go where you want it to go.
- While we suggest a more open and practical direct relationship with failure, that doesn't mean tolerating it as an excuse for incompetence, negligence, or indifference.
- How you deal with failures of your team members is the acid test of whether you trust them, and vice versa. And trust is essential to address the biggest failure in most organizations: Employees are not meaningfully engaged in their work or mission.
- If you're serious about innovation or entrepreneurship, be prepared for the failure that often comes with the experiments and risks associated with those objectives. Use it to understand what you don't know or haven't yet delivered.
- Our seven-stage Failure Value Cycle framework can help your organization to better understand and harness failure as a value-add resource:
1. Respect the power and likelihood of failure
2. Rehearse for your most significant failure scenarios to develop better, faster reflexes
3. Recognize its signs sooner
4. React to failure situations more appropriately in the moment
5. Reflect deeply and honestly on their underlying causes so you can craft better strategies going forward
6. Rebound confidently, based on the lessons learned
7. Remember the insights you gained, to strengthen your culture's ability to leverage future failures
- Failure is today's lesson for tomorrow. Put it to work to help you accelerate innovation, intensify employee engagement, and drive growth. Youand your organization are fallible. Admitting that reality and leveraging the failures you create builds the trust you need to create those results.
The mantras we hear so often to "fail fast, fail often," and "fail forward" really mean nothing if there's no process in place to do so, to move forward from and out of it. If the individual or team "responsible" for the failure has to carry a stigma with them because of it, the political consequences can lead to the desertion of great talent and a more risk-averse employee pool left. We all live and work in fallible organizations filled with fallible individuals. But that fallibility can be used as fuel. To do so, we have to do more than pay lip-service to the benefits of failure, we must systematize them. The Other "F" Word is a good starting point to do so.