From failsafe to safefail

Alex has a great post today on his Top 5 reasons to celebrate mistakes at work.  I’ve been hearing lately from many clients about the need for us to loosen up and accept more failure in our work.  The pressure that comes from perfection and maintaining a failsafe environment is a killer, and while we all demand high levels of accountability and performance, working in a climate where we can fail-safe provides more opportunity to find creative ways forward that are hitherto unknown.  So to compliment Alex’s post, here are a few ways to create a safe-fail environment:

1. Be in a learning journey with others.  While you are working with people, see your work as a learning journey and share questions and inquiries with your team.

2. Take time to reflect on successes and failures together. We are having a lovely conversation on the OSLIST, the Open Space facilitator’s listserv about failures right now and it’s refreshing to hear stories about where things went sideways.  What we learn from those experiences is deep, both about ourselves and our work.

3. Be helpful. When a colleague takes a risk and fail, be prepared to setp up to help them sort it out.  My best boss ever gave us three rules to operate under: be loyal to your team, make mistakes and make sure he was the first to know when you made one.  There was almost nothing we could do that he couldn’t take care of, and we always had him at our backs, as long as he was the first to hear about it.  Providing that support to team members is fantastic.

4. Apologize together.  Show a united front, and help make amends when things go wrong.  This is a take on one of the improv principles of making your partner look good.  It is also about taking responsibility and having many minds and hearts to put to work to correct what needs correcting.  This one matters when your mistake costs lives.  Would be nice to see this more in the corporate world.

5. Build on the offer. Another improv principle, this one invites us to see what we just went through as an offer to move on to the next thing.

6. Don’t be hard on yourself.  You can’t get out of a pickle if you are berating yourself up for being there.  I find The Work of Byron Katie to be very very helpful in helping become clear about what to do next and to loosen up on the story that just because I failed, therefore I am a failure.

Now these little lessons work in complex environments, like human organizations, not mechanical systems so before you jump on me for having unrealistic expectation for airplanes and oil rigs, just know that.  Having said that, dealing with the human costs of airplane crashes and oil rig explosions requires clarity, and being wrapped in blame and self-loathing is not the same as being empathetic and clear.


  1. You might be interested in a paper I published in 1991 on Fail-safe versus Safe-fail: towards an Evolutionary Model of Justice. You can download it from the Selected Publications tab on my website,

  2. Thanks Alicia!