Hey Leaders: Failure Isn’t a Dirty Word


Failure. It’s a word that evokes fear. And for good reason: We’re taught to avoid it at all costs

And when it happens, “never admit it!”

Failure = Bad

Our brains automatically try to distort, deny, or manipulate our sense of reality to make failure less damaging to our ego. Beyond that, we’re also protecting our livelihoods. After all, failure could lead to the loss of a job or hard-built reputation, which could not only harm us but the families that depend on us.

As a leader, failure all too often is equated with the fear of losing your organization, your department, and your people.

It’s Not all Bad

In manufacturing, the goal is to eliminate failure from the processes by driving toward zero defects—a goal based on the routine nature and highly probable outcomes of the process. But innovation is a little different.

Innovative timelines can be three to five years (or more) and it’s much more difficult to predict the future. The more uncertainty involved, the higher the probability the project will fail to meet objectives.

Failure is a possible (and sometimes more probable) outcome from work in driving innovation. If we decide to ignore our failures, sweep them under the rug or run in the opposite direction, we will never have the opportunity to learn from our mistakes.

Learning through Failure

Work with a high degree of uncertainty comes with a need to tolerate—and even expect—failure. This kind of work, such as innovation, should be understood for what it is: Research and Development.

Rather than talking about failure as a worthless initiative, talk about it as an experiment from which valuable knowledge and experience is gained.

When discussing failed innovation projects, I focus on three questions:

  • First, what was the group able to accomplish?
  • Next, what did they learn?
  • And finally, what would they have done differently?

Don’t let your team focus too much on things like not having enough resources, because that’s always an issue in any size organization.

Don’t push blame on others—whether or not it’s accurate, it’s likely not going to be helpful.

Anchor your lessons in facts and help others draw their own conclusions on their roles in a failed project.

Creating a Positive Environment for Failure

To create a safe environment to recognize and discuss failure, it’s imperative that it starts at the top, no matter the size of the organization. Provide examples of failed projects, what has been learned from those projects, and how that work is going to push the organization forward.

Leaders should emphasize that failure is part of the learning process.

To live up to these expectations, it is up to the leaders to hold their teams accountable for living up to expectations. Every part of an organization will be involved in supporting innovation and failure.

  • HR will need to review their procedures for dealing with people involved in a failed initiative.
  • Finance will need to understand performance metrics more akin to startup companies than mature organizations.
  • Marketing will need a communication strategy for addressing failed initiatives.

It’s important for the leadership team to recognize those involved in the failure and to congratulate them on their journey and contributions. Only then, with the proper closure to the failure, can the process begin again.

Treat Your People Well

It’s critical to understand how you are treating the individuals involved in high-risk work. When someone takes a risk in their career by working on innovation initiatives and they are punished for their failures, they will either stop taking risks and settle for a less risky position, or they will temper their risk taking to the point where they are certain they won’t fail.

Let your team know that you are proud of all that they have accomplished, despite their failure.

And be sure to use the information, knowledge, and experience that you have gained in the failure to move on, improve, and build your next project.

Fear of failure leads to fear of risk, and without risk, an organization cannot grow. So lead your teams to go for what’s a little risky, learn from the risks that don’t work out, and keep up the spirit of respect for the endeavor.


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Matt Hunt
Matt Hunt is a speaker, consultant and founder of Stanford and Griggs, LLC
He has over 20 years of Business and Technology Experience
Email | LinkedIn | Twitter | Web

Image Sources: translatingcuba.com

3 responses to “Hey Leaders: Failure Isn’t a Dirty Word

  1. I agree with you.
    I also think it is worthwhile to look on all words that way. We are all to sensitive to the words. Words has no value. They only takes on a role because of early conditioning. An awful lot of hostility and poor communication would be eliminated if we just avoided to react to words. They are not offensive only our mind makes them so.


  2. We tend to focus on learning how to succeed, but often forget that we need to also learn how to fail, with dignity. Failure is an important stepping stone to success. Too bad we try to skip, shame or ignore it when it happens, rather than learning from it.


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