The Four Ways to Fail

What does it mean to fail well?

As I’ve discussed, it’s definitely more important than success. But it’s possible to fail badly. What does it mean to fail well?

Knowing how to fail is more important than knowing why you failed or why you succeeded. Knowing how to fail will transform your organization.

The worst way to fail is to lay blame and chop heads. This is a common reaction, but it is a reaction that is incongruous with failure. If someone sabotages your business, or if someone betrays you, it makes sense that you would cut them off before they do more damage, but cutting down someone who makes a sincere effort is counterproductive. Blaming and cutting people down will only sabotage future success without doing anything to change the current failure, and encourages a culture that hides mistakes out of fear rather than acknowledging and dealing with them.

The second-worst way to fail is to brush aside the failure and move forward as though it never happened. This is what people will do when they operate in an environment where failure is seen as unequivocally bad. Failure gets swept under the rug before it gets worse. If you frequently discover failures at the last minute or even after the fact–failures that were hidden–it means the people working for your business don’t feel safe to fail. The first step toward failing well is being allowed to fail at all.

The second-best way to fail is to acknowledge the failure as quickly as possible, assess the damage and the causes, and put into place an action plan to deal with the failure. Documenting the causes and circumstances of failure creates important data points for later improvement, an improvement that will likely become a big project of its own.

The best way to fail is to put into place a methodology that anticipates failure. It’s surprising how often failure is unexpected, which is to say we expect success and then deal with failure as it comes. Far better is to expect failure in the process of improving success. Establishing a methodology not just to take advantage of failure but to make it an integral part of your business is by far the best way to fail, and allows us to improve continuously without having to turn improvement into its own project.

Two side notes: There are, of course, types of failure that are outright dangerous, from design defects in automobile safety systems to errors in financial calculations that cause massive losses. For good reason, such things require redundancy, regulation, and testing to ensure they are safe.

And secondly: If failure happens to be unequivocally bad for your job, you’d better start looking into new careers, because you’re likely to be automated away.

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