Permission to Fail


by Dennis Roberts

In a highly competitive environment success is paramount. Right from our early education we are indoctrinated to pass exams or suffer the indignity of failure. Promotions are awarded on merit. It’s all very quantifiable, vey clinical. We are educated by rote learning. We cram for exams, forget life skills, and forget what we crammed some weeks later too.

Even in sporting contests a close eye is kept on the scoreboard. The popular parlance in sporting culture is to maintain “scoreboard pressure”. It’s all very linear, very formulaic. Yet we live in an increasingly complex and volatile business environment. Long range plans are largely guesswork beyond two years. Cycles are shorter and the demand for real time management information is urgent.

What we need to cultivate is more risk tolerance and with that comes greater latitude towards risk taking, mistake making and failure. Give yourself and your team permission to fail. For much of our bringing we are conditioned to believe that failure is not an option. The days of command and control style authority are over. This is a new age and new measures are required.

Leadership is an activity rather than a character trait. It is not the sole preserve of people in positions of power and authority, au contraire, leadership is there for the taking. It is not necessarily about leading a team of people. You can lead ideas, initiatives, actions, views, opinions and none require followers.

An uncertain environment requires a more flexible, innovative and lateral thinking approach. It’s green fields territory and there are often no precedents which if you embark on the challenge with an inquisitive mindset it can be quite liberating. Every moment is an opportunity to reshape the future.

How might you reinvent yourself, your team, and your business to grant permission to fail as part of an innovative culture?

Shorten the cycle time

- if you actively encourage a risk taking culture then don’t go about it with an open cheque book, put upper/lower control limits around it. The quicker your feedback loop measures success or failure, the quicker you assess what’s working or not working and take corrective action.

Share the lessons

- by this I mean solicit feedback or self-assessment from the incumbent before you draw conclusions from on high. Leadership, and leadership lessons, come from all quarters so ensure you give yourself every opportunity to solicit feedback from diverse sources.

Balance the judgement

– we live in a harshly critical environment so cut your people, including yourself, some slack. Find an equal number of positives for all the negatives. People give their best, and they respond in spades when shown some encouragement.

by Dennis Roberts