How do you make it OK to fail?


The principle that we learn from failure makes sense. Understanding why something hasn’t worked prevents us (hopefully) from making the same mistakes again and helps us to adapt and progress. However in practice it’s really hard to admit that we failed. We don’t like it.

We have opportunities to achieve great success if we can create environments or ways of working that allow us to test ideas, learn from failure, adapt quickly, test again and keep learning.

There is a renowned story about Greenpeace’s ‘Dog’s Bollocks Award’ ceremony, where staff shared their biggest disasters. By encouraging staff to spotlight their failures, Greenpeace achieved two key things:

  • Helping staff from around the world learn from each others’ mistakes
  • Demonstrating to staff that a certain level of risk and failure is acceptable, as long as the lessons are publicly acknowledged and not swept under the carpet

A team I worked with recently now has a ‘fail yea!’ slot on their monthly meeting. It deliberately forces people to consider and share what didn’t work so well, in order to help each other develop better solutions for next time. Pitched as a positive, ‘fail yea!’ has helped them develop their work, particularly around their events programme which has improved significantly because they were honest, challenged themselves on areas for improvement and were supportive to sharing and learning as a team.

Creating a safe environment where people can share and learn from failure is not easy, but it will lead to better results and help to prevent failures from being replicated. Here are five practical things that you can do to get started.

  1. Lead by example and start to share your own failures. Focus on what you have learned and what you will do differently next time.
  2. Ask your team and colleagues for their ideas about ways to make sharing failure and learning part of everyone’s day-to-day work.
  3. Consider a structured way to feedback and record failures, it might be a slot on a team meeting, or a part of a project group debrief, it could be awards or an online learning space to share failure. However you do it the focus is on the learning not the failure.
  4. Help to shift the perception of failure by raising ambition. Isn’t it better to set aspirational goals that push you out of your comfort zone in order to achieve them, which means there is more chance, if something has not been done before to fail, and fall short, than set mediocre or easy to reach targets and then achieve them…..?
  5. Start right now and if it doesn’t work then adapt and try again – see point 1.

If you have other ways that are helping you learn from failure, please do share, either in the comments below or by email.


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