Building a Culture of Failure

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Peter Drucker

You’ve probably heard this many times before. It’s the idea that strategy, while a necessary part of business, just doesn’t correlate with success the way culture does. If you want your organization to make progress – actual, sustained progress – you’ve got to have a strong culture.

There’s a reason for that: execution happens at the culture level, not the planning level.

Strategy isn’t work; it’s work about work. Meta-work. It’s saying what you do and who you do it for, and coming up with a plan to connect the two.

But culture isn’t about saying what you’re going to do. It’s about doing what you do, for the people you do it for.

For example: your strategy might be “we’re going to serve busy working families with younger kids, by offering them something that makes their life easier and more fulfilling.” That’s a good strategy.

But it’s not the real work. The real work happens when you define in detail all the things that matter most to those families, and start designing with them in mind. When you create a product, service, or experience that they actually want or need, and deliver it.

And all that work happens at the execution level.

Not that long ago my organization was going through an endless cycle of working on strategies and organizational frameworks. Hours and hours were spent in large team meetings where we listened to leaders talk about models and strategies to accomplish our goals.

One of our younger staff members summed up how a number of us felt around that time: “We’re spending all our time working on frameworks and never actually doing anything.”

Ouch. But she was right.

Not long after that comment, we gave that young staffer an important job: managing our social media during one of our biggest annual events. We gave her a few ideas, some goals for frequency of posts and things to capture, and turned her loose.

Over that one week, our social engagement hit peak levels. We reached thousands more people than we usually do. We had a fully-engaged staff member who felt great about the work she was doing. And we captured a ton of content to use at the following year’s big event.

Execution drives culture, and culture improves execution.

This is a great story, right? What a great way to approach work! But then, something happens that you weren’t ready for.

Failure.

As Mike Tyson put it, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

Sometimes failure is like a punch in the face. It shakes you up. You forget your carefully-crafted plan, and start to flail (like “fail” with an “l”). You do all you can to avoid having it happen again, because getting punched hurt.

Getting punched is also part of being in the ring. It’s gonna happen. How you deal with it determines your success far more than the plan you had when you stepped between the ropes.

Keep flailing, and you will get knocked out. So how do you stop flailing, and get back to making progress?

Yet know getting punched is necessary. And in a way, failure is necessary too. If you’re not failing, you’re not in the ring. If nothing ever throws you off your game, are you really making progress, or just dancing around the ring?

Just like taking a punch teaches is what to be ready for, failure is good, too. It teaches us about what we’re facing, it toughens us, and brings us together.

But only if our culture can handle it. Only if it’s the kind of culture that tolerates failure, celebrates the learning and growth that goes with it, and the effort behind the result.

Only if it’s a culture of failure.

So how do you establish it?

  1. Celebrate failures first. Before you talk about the positives, the gains, the learnings, have a party. Applaud the effort. Show the team you care about them more than their results. Make sure everyone knows you’re still behind them. If they’re still standing, they deserve some praise.
  2. Call failures what they were: failures. It’s so tempting in organizations – especially ones with weak cultures – to reframe failure. To call it an “experiment” or a “learning exercise.” Everyone knows you didn’t undertake this bold new initiative to learn something; you had a goal, and didn’t reach it. So own up to it, and move on. Honesty in a failure culture (any culture, really) is paramount.
  3. Scrutinize, don’t demonize. Failure is like a bad breakup: the worst thing you can do is move on too quickly. Take time to learn from what went wrong so you don’t let it happen again. Don’t start playing the blame game because it is not helpful. If failure happened and you were part of it, you’re also part of the solution. Own that responsibility and people will respect you for it.
  4. Make failure a given, but not a habit. With all this talk about the importance of failure, it still should be the exception, not the rule. If you start talking about failure like it’s not a big deal, pay attention to that. Big successes only happen when you take big risks, and a risk is only big if it has consequences. So pay attention to your overall progress, allowing for some failure along the way.

What are your thoughts on failure? Let me know.

Written by jaredwilley

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