Just read an article on how the fear of failure is the greatest thing holding back innovation in the business world. One reads these kinds of articles all the time. The essence is that unless we can let go of fear or deal with our deep need to be in control at all times, innovation is stifled.
This is true of course, but I see few articles that talk about how fear of failure in built into the architecture of the organization.
We live in an expert driven culture. Kids raised in schools are taught at an early age that having the answer is everything. Children raise their hands and are given points for the correct answer. Marks and scores are awarded for success – failure gets you remedial help, often crushing dreams and passions at the same time.
In the post-school world, most people are hired in a job interview based on the answers they give. There are millions of words written on how to give a stellar job interview, to land the job of your dreams. It is has to do with giving the right answers.
And so it is no surprise in the organizational world that I see success as the the only way forward and failure as “not an option.” For leaders, embracing failure is almost too risky. Despite the management literature to the contrary, I see very few leaders willing to take the risk that something may fail. Sometimes the failure is wrapped in competence – it’s okay to fail, but not to have losses. In other words, don’t do something I can’t repair.
This is because few of these articles talk about some of the real politiks of organizational life. It’s not that I’m afraid to fail – it’s that I am afraid to lose my job. When there is a scarcity of political capital and credit in an organization, there are multiple games that are played to turn failure into a way to screw the other guy so I don’t lose my job. Blame is deflected, responsibility is assigned elsewhere, and sometimes people will take credit for taking the risk but will lie the failure at the feet of someone else. It’s relatively easy to play on the expert driven culture to advance your own causes at the expense of another’s failings.
The answer to this is for leaders to be engaged in changing the architecture of fear and failure in the organization. It means hiring people into their areas of stretch, not into their areas of core competence. It means embodying risk taking, and creating and maintaining a culture of risk and trust. A single betrayal destroys the fabric of a risk taking team.
I think that means going beyond simply having corporate pep rallies to celebrate failure, or giving incentives for the “best failed idea.” It goes to creating a culture of conversation and collective ownership for successes and failures. It means standing with each other and not advancing your own interests at the expense of something that was tried. It means deeply investigating on an ongoing basis the ways in which we hold each other accountable so that we may work with grace and support, to rush in to help when things go sideways instead of lobbing accusations from the sidelines.
Without changing the architecture of fear, embracing the fear of failure is impossible.