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Why Failure Should Always Be an Option

Jeff Miller

Chief Learning Officer and Vice President of Organizational Effectiveness, Cornerstone OnDemand

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was to focus on moving the needle, rather than achieving perfection. "Get 80 percent of the way there," said one of our senior leaders, "And fix what was missed later." It's a nugget of wisdom I wish I had learned earlier in my career—and, as such, I've gotten in the habit of sharing it with every new employee on my team.

What's wrong with perfection? All too often, we place pressure on others and ourselves to create the perfect report or complete a perfect project. But instead of driving innovation and improving performance (as one would assume), this pursuit of perfection actually stunts creativity and limits achievement.

Think about it: If your goal is to deliver flawless work, you're likely going to stick within the boundaries of what you know, whether that's your own work or what you've seen others do before you. And while there's something to be said for understanding "what works," there's more to be said for figuring out what works even better.

Today's work landscape values innovation over tradition—coloring outside of the lines over checking boxes. The people (and, subsequently, organizations) that succeed today are the ones willing to try something new. In order to foster a culture of pushing the envelope, you can't strive for perfection—instead, you need to make peace with failure.

The Beauty of Failure

Of course, opening ourselves up to the idea of failure isn't easy. Our instinct as managers is to guide people towards success, to police growth and ensure that everyone is capable of fulfilling their responsibilities.

Employees don't tend towards failure either, because the typical organization doesn't reward failure; it rewards a crossed-off to-do list and achieved goals.But it's time for a shift in perspective. This doesn't mean creating a culture of failure, but creating a culture where the chance of failure is okay. If you want your employees to swing for the fences, you need to ensure that they're comfortable striking out once in a while.

Create Opportunities to Miss the Mark

Encouraging failure is not only antithetical to the traditional way of managing, it's also risky. As a manager, how do you allow employees to fail without discouraging them or jeopardizing your work?

The key is to think about failure strategically. Yes, allowing someone to miss the mark on any initiative is inherently messy and unpredictable, but if you approach the possibility of failure with a purpose, you will ultimately achieve more in the end.

First, be deliberate about providing opportunities where failure is an option. A culture of innovation isn't simply created by telling employees to take risks and think big—you need to create actual opportunities for them to do so. In addition to providing your team with projects and responsibilities where they can excel, provide them with "stretch assignments" that exist just beyond their comfort zone.

Second, step outside of the comfort zone with them — if you're going to put people in a situation where failure is either imminent or highly probable, be ready to coach them back out of it. The last thing you want to do as a manager is put someone in a position where they might fail, and not provide them with the resources (whether it's yourself, a fellow teammate or a mentor) to fix it.

The Secret Sauce

The ultimate secret to fostering a positive view of failure is feedback. From the beginning to the end of a project, managers should create a culture of open communication with employees.

This starts by setting the right expectations: Don't give your employees a stretch assignment unknowingly—this will only confuse them, and likely stress them out. A stretch is achievable, but with a degree of risk. Tasks that are easy to complete will create a sense of boredom in employees. Let's say you're planning a training session for your department. You want Molly to lead the session; and while she's helped you put together slides and materials for past events, she's never presented one herself. Sit down with her and let her know you want her to take on the next session, but emphasize that you're intentionally putting her in an uncomfortable place—you don't expect her to know exactly what to do, and that's okay.

Next, ask about Molly's concerns, and define a way to assuage them during the process: What are your biggest hesitations? What will you do when you're lost? Where do you want my help? Then, provide guidance along the way, but make sure she's developing and practicing it on her own first. If you want Molly to grow, you should be there as a sounding board for the stretch project—not a collaborator.

Finally, after the presentation, ask for her feedback first: What went well? What went poorly? What would you do differently? Then, offer your own commentary — and make sure you deliver it in the best way. Molly might prefer feedback "right between the eyes," whereas Mike prefers you couch criticism between praise.

Offering opportunities for your employees to take a risk will not only encourage them to proactively think outside the box, but also show them that failure is not the enemy. Complacency is the enemy—and in our dynamic, fast-paced world, it's the ones who dare greatly who ultimately succeed.

Phoro: Creative Commons

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