In American culture there’s a lot of dialogue around failure, and in many circles it centers on how to recover from it, like failure is an ailment we have to bounce back from after overcoming the accompanying fits of shame.
In the workplace, we speak in hushed voices about not getting the promotion or missing a deadline or even minutiae like an unfortunate brush with the reply-all button. In many ways, American individualism is linked to an expectation of thriving adequacy—we value consistency, resilience, and being bold in the face of obstacles.
And though this idealism can motivate (and lead to desirable outcomes), it also complicates our relationship with barriers and setbacks.
Fear of Failure
From 2013 to 2014, I spent 12 months on a project in northern Uganda, a region where resources are low and failure is constant. There, it was difficult to feel good about a workday spent chasing feeble Internet connections, losing time to persistent power outages, and pushing (one) paper.
Amid so many barriers, my sense of resilience became overshadowed by a fear of failure that was strangely demotivating. I had certainly faced my share of obstacles at organizations in the US, but these were of a much larger magnitude. I began to feel like The Formerly Successful Me—and I certainly didn’t want to talk about that.
My silence was challenged by the fact that the word ‘fail’ is used far more casually in Ugandan English. Our local staff would frequently confess their mistakes without blinking an eye. In fact, they’d seek this “outing,” coming into my office to divulge a laundry list of dropped balls. It didn’t bother them—missing the mark was an unavoidable part of their experience.
This was startling at first, but eventually I adjusted by replacing private discomfort with public dialogue. And the rhythm of these open conversations enabled me to view failure more holistically:
- as a reaction to action (a good thing!),
- an opportunity to engage with others, and
- a benchmark to best practices.
After a year of this, I returned to the US with more confidence—I was officially a seasoned failure, and my ability to move through mistakes was whole, fierce, and authentic.
So I found myself seeking out companies focused less on performing and more on learning. I wanted to see failure presented as a roadmap of communal caution signs and nothing more.
And I wondered: who’s being transparent about failure, and what can we learn from them?
Undoubtedly, the startup world has breathed new life into our treatment of failure. With an average success rate of only 10%, these companies birthed the “failure post-mortem,” an open letter penned by the other 90% to explain pitfalls and warn others.
These preventative roadmaps increased significantly around 2011 when startup founders began struggling—often publicly—under the enormous weight of ‘being-the-next-big-thing’ pressures. When the community began losing its best leaders, the resulting outcry pointed to lack of support and openness.
This shift toward increased transparency gained traction with catchphrases like “fail forward,” which inject an element of success into a big miss—if not in the act itself than in the ability to share it.
Consider the following scenarios:
- There’s an annual global conference (called FailCon, naturally) that empowers the startup community to share their failures as a mechanism for collaboration and preparation.
- A startup called Zen99 recently closed its doors and released an incredibly constructive post-mortem. The series of essays are meant to highlight challenges, point to alternatives, and provide guidance on how to navigate a shutdown.
- At mature startup Etsy, engineers confess their mistakes in company-wide emails called PSAs. CEO Chad Dickerson points to this as part of their “just culture,” which nurtures blamelessness in order to encourage transparency and increase accountability.
These trends prompt important questions, among them: What if more leadership retreats were modeled after FailCon? Would we benefit from receiving a brief post-mortem from colleagues after major projects or product launches? Would matter-of-factly airing small mistakes help us avoid the larger ones?
The Next Big (Blameless) Boom
Startups aren’t the only ones embracing the idea of blamelessness, as established organizations explore whether this “progressive” concept is actually more in line with traditional values of efficiency.
Last year amid high-profile product recalls, General Motors introduced a new program called “Speak Up for Safety” in hopes of increasing candid conversations among employees. “Employees should raise safety concerns quickly and forcefully, and be recognized for doing so,” said CEO Mary Parra, highlighting the subversive potential of transparency.
The leadership team at Red Hat is leading the way on how to systematize transparency with its employee forum, or “memo-list,” an internal social network for streamlining conversations about the organization’s big wins—as well as its losses.
These and other programs could, by design, nurture collaboration and decrease stigma, allowing us to have a more positive relationship with complex work that both triumphs and fumbles. We may even start to feel gratitude for the latter.