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Leaders: Use Failure To Increase Success

(posted: December 9th, 2013)

We are taught that the f-word is shameful, and that we should avoid its use.

No, not that f-word, this one:

  • Failure.

But failure begets success.

The Lessons of Failure

Why do we find it so hard to admit to our mistakes?

Mistakes often bring with them shame, disappointment, blame and finger pointing. We have a tendency to want to hide our mistakes for fear of looking weak, or incompetent, or even losing our job.

If we accept that failure is an inevitable experience on the path to success, however, then we can use it to learn and grow.

Failure can produce

  • Creativity
  • Resiliency
  • Innovation
  • Flexible thinking
  • Progress

All of which are important to business success now, and will be even more so in the future.

Perhaps the most important thing you as a leader can do to make failure acceptable, is to change the culture of your organization so that people understand that failures and mistakes are not going to incur blame (other than intentional negligence). Foster an environment where failures are willingly surfaced because they will be honestly evaluated to determine what can be changed or done better the next time.

Saving The Board

It was nearing the end of the first day of the big, two-day strategic planning board retreat I was facilitating. The board, consisting of over 50 CEOs from competing organizations, was having some trouble achieving the goals we had set. We were behind, the busy execs only had one more day, and it was starting to look like the whole thing was going to implode.

After we broke for the evening, I sat down to evaluate the day. Continuing in the same vein was simply not an option, so I looked at all the different variables from the day, trying to determine where the problems began.

I realized that when the CEOs were working in the smaller, breakout groups they had made great progress. They were engaged, they had animated conversations, and they reached some important conclusions. I had seen really good work happening. Then, when we moved into the full group setting, progress had come to a screeching halt. It seemed that ears were closed and mouths were open; nobody was listening.

"Failure happens all the time. It happens every day in practice. What makes you better is how you react to it."

~Mia Hamm

With that observation, I was able to reorganize the next day's activities to take advantage of the small groups, rearranging the full group session and changing the way the activities were presented.

The final day went off without a hitch, participation was high, and the board members felt like they had accomplished their objectives, and more. In fact, they have asked me to return. What could have been a failure was transformed into a success.

Flexible Failure

In this situation, I was alert to what was happening in the meeting, and aware that the board was not progressing as expected, so I was able to identify the problem, analyze what was going wrong and "experiment" with a different format.

I "failed fast" by catching it quickly and applying a creative solution.

Organizations can learn from failure by applying these three key actions:

  • Detection - Encourage people to talk about it, bring it to the attention of the team, etc. In this case, I was paying close attention, so I caught that there was a problem.
  • Analysis - Look at the process to determine what went wrong. I went back over the course of the day carefully and found the specific issue that seemed to be the root cause.
  • Experimentation - Try different solutions or apply different methods to find one that does work. My solution for the board was to be flexible with the process I had created, change the plan to eliminate the elements that weren't working, and try a new approach the next day.

Ask: What happened?

Not: Who did it?

How Leaders Can Encourage Failure

"If you're not failing every now and again, it's a sign you're not doing anything very innovative."

~Woody Allen

  • Why is it important to surface mistakes and learn from them? Make sure that your leaders and teams understand your position on this, and explain to them clearly that you want to use failures as tools for learning.
  • Be open about your own mistakes, what you don't know, and what you can't get done alone. Done strategically and with sincerity, this is one of the best ways you can encourage others to acknowledge mistakes.
  • Reward the messenger - Those who are brave enough to bring up bad news, questions, concerns or mistakes should be praised rather than shot. Be clear about appreciating the information, then figure out how to fix the failure and learn from it.
  • Invite participation - When you ask for observations and ideas, of all sorts, you include people in processes. They are more likely to detect and analyze failures, and originate intelligent solutions. Asking your people to be involved, and rewarding the results, makes them less defensive and more open.
  • Accountability - As with anything, people need the safety of boundaries. They need leaders to be clear about what is blameworthy, and there must be clear consequences.

With each specific project: Document your assumptions going into the project. While the project is underway, do things like mini postmortems after specific sections are finished, checkpoint reviews at key thresholds, and, of course, review meetings at the project's conclusion. Go back and look at the assumptions going in, discuss what happened, what the implications are for those assumptions, and determine the next steps.

Leading Your Teams To Success

Regular readers know that I talk about trust a lot. Creating a culture that accepts and learns from failure requires a foundation of trust. Does your team trust you?

We'll go deeper into trust in some upcoming posts, but for now, keep in mind that if you want your teams to learn from their mistakes, they need to trust you, and each other.

Finally, failing again and again can be valuable, as long as what is learned brings you closer to your goals.

So...I hope I've convinced you to use the f-word more often!

Related Posts:

Challenge Yourself
  • How do you use failure to succeed?
  • Can you share some examples of your teams learning from their mistakes?
  • What has happened when you've been open about a mistake or failure?

Images licensed from 123RF

1 Comment


Leave a comment

KLR Post

Stanford's Bob Sutton says that when analyzing a misstep, in addition to asking what went wrong, you should also ask, "in this failure, what went right?" He says the best learning comes from looking at successes and failures side by side.

Posted by kristi

(on Mar 21st, 2014  8:09 AM)

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