I'm a big champion of failure. I often extol the virtues of being open to getting things wrong in the quest to push your thinking beyond stale boundaries.
But talk is cheap.
We all love the IDEA of failing freely, but when you're right there, experiencing the very real pain of seeing things go wrong, conviction can waver. Explaining spending time and money on dead ends to hard-nosed investors or styling out public blushes in front of critical audiences calls for nerves of steel and an unwavering belief in the long-term benefits of your actions.
Sometimes even I falter. Enough doubt about the feasibility of welcoming failure in business can gently shake the foundations of your belief, but this week re-affirmed my conviction that taking the stigma out of getting things wrongs is a MUST for a healthy culture of growth and curiosity.
Last week my daughter, Marina, was learning about different religious figures in history. She was enjoying showcasing the knowledge she had because, unexpectedly, I was in the classroom. She probably felt a little more confident than normal because her mum was close by and I'm guessing she also wanted me to be proud of her. Her hand was shooting up at every question and she'd had the chance to answer a couple correctly. Then, another question .... this a little trickier, but my daughter was unfazed. Up went the hand again but when the teacher asked for her response she was met with puzzled looks all round. The answer wasn't right, at least it wasn't conventionally correct but it showed a bit of invention and imagination. The teacher, understandably, said no, she'd never heard of this answer and moved on hurriedly, but not before a few of the children had a little giggle at Marina's effort.
"Ho hum," I thought, "nice try", but then I looked over at Marina. Her arm was pinned by her side, her shoulders were slumped and head down, she was trying to make herself invisible. In that moment I remembered the pain of exposure as a child and what a big deal a moment like that can be. My presence had given her a burst of confidence and a touch of recklessness. All too quickly, the fall had stripped her of all of this and replaced it with shame.
As soon as I could, l got hold of Marina to reassure and praise her for her imagination and bravery in tackling the tricky question, my heart hurt at her vulnerability and uncertainty. I'm often stressing to both my daughters the importance of being happy to get things wrong and the need for failure in order to do brave and brilliant things, but here I was, holding my wobbly daughter, realising that saying all this in the safe environment of their home was one thing, asking them to hold their nerve amongst their peers and superiors was another.
Talk is cheap.
I was reminded then, just how subtle and powerful our fear of failure is. Even by the age of eight the message has been burned into the brain - 'there's a correct answer, don't raise your hand if you don't think you've got it'. But in shutting down risk we are shutting the door on little flashes of imagination and originality. And, if we're programmed to feel SHAME at missing the mark when we try something new, then we really are in a mess.
I've learned to spend more time on the culture people build around innovation; testing whether the processes for innovation that people want to learn, can really thrive under the behaviour and expectations of their leaders. I'm also now devising a creative session for kids that helps them realise that:
- progress is impossible without plenty of mess and failure along the way
- there's not just one right answer to a problem - pushing yourself beyond accepted responses can deliver magic
- a blend of talents and personalities makes the strongest team - be proud of your contribution
- and staying safe and passively accepting everything you've been taught isn't the route to success
When faced with the choice of risking a face-plant or keeping on the self-inflicted handcuffs that only allow you to speak or act when you're totally certain of success ... go for the face-plant. You'll get up stronger and you might even make a few people giggle along the way.