Sharing failure – simple concept and much easier said than done

One of the best books I’ve read on building a culture where creativity and innovation can thrive is Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull.

Perhaps it’s no big surprise given that Pixar is tasked with producing a volume of original entertaining animations every year.

Their blockbuster portfolio includes Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc.

Ed Catmull is refreshingly candid in sharing his experiences and I learned many insightful lessons from him. However, the thing that stood out for me most were his views and experiences about risk, failure and vulnerability.

If you work in innovation or product development or have any role in driving change, thinking creatively or doing things in a different way then the clichés around failure will be familiar to you. You know like…

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” Winston S. Churchil

“Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.” Truman Capote

“It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.” Theodore Roosevelt

“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”  Robert F. Kennedy

It’s not that I don’t agree with these quotes or the sentiment that we learn by our mistakes, it’s just a LOT easier to say it than it is to do it.

I learned this first hand a few years ago when I wrote a report on innovation. Part of my research was to interview people who worked in innovation. On the topic of failure, everyone agreed that it was a very important part of innovation. Everyone agreed that it was vital to share failure so both yourself and others could learn from it.

However, when I asked if people would like to share their failures in the report people either simply said ‘no’, or were happy to share their failures with me in conversation but would prefer I didn’t mention them in the report.

According to Ed, the managers at Pixar work hard to create an environment that supports both risk taking and failure. Ed states that it’s not the managers job to prevent risks. It’s the managers job to make it safe for others to make them. And this involves leading by example.

Ed tells a story about how he asked for feedback from the Pixar teams about blocks to getting the job done and it turned out a lot of the blocks were down to him. He read out the full feedback list in front of everyone at an all staff conference. He thanked people for their feedback and committed to making changes. That must have felt less than excellent. I think showing vulnerability like that takes some bravery.

I believe that in order to create an environment where creativity and innovation can flourish we must lead by example. How can we expect others to ‘fail fast and fail better’ if we are not able to ourselves?

I work with teams to help them create an environment where creativity and innovation can flourish, and as you might imagine, the failure topic comes up a lot.

What I’ve learned is that failure is emotional. The words people use to describe failure and how it makes them feel are powerful and emotive; devastated, ashamed, scared, horrified, stupid, humiliated, upset, distraught.

How we describe our learnings from failure are rational, facts, ‘I learned to always back up my laptop’ Not we were elated, excited, empowered…

We dwell on the feelings of failure over the good stuff that failure teaches us.

I’ve seen that when a team has felt vulnerable together by sharing their feelings about failure it creates a shared understanding ‘we all experience similar feelings of pain and remorse at failure’.

And once there is a shared experience and a realisation that you are not alone, trust builds, and over time it becomes easier to reveal your vulnerability and your failures and learn from them, because you know others will have empathy and will be open about their failures too.

If you are a manager, it’s your job to create that supportive environment where failure is talked about and learned from.

It is a simple concept and much easier said than done.

If you’d like some help then do get in touch

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