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Learning from Failure: The Mojo of Great Companies

Learning from Failure: The Mojo of Great Companies

By: Dona DeZube

What is it that successful and growing companies know that your company might not be doing? These companies embrace work failures by treating them as strategic opportunities to learn. 

After all, failure is an inherent outcome of any risk-taking. And in today’s business world, being risk adverse is a dead end. 

Reframing failure can also help boost your employer brand. Rewarding calculated risks creates an inherently more exciting workplace culture than the status quo; that type of culture will also help you attract quality people — people who know how to fail and bounce back quickly. 

To be clear, the mistakes we’re talking about don’t involve sending out proposals riddled with errors. We’re talking about attempting something – a marketing idea or a product innovation – having the effort fail, analyzing what happened, then using what was learned to improve the business.

“The whole story of failure and the process of analyzing failure and making improvements is a hard statement for a company to make,” says Ralph Heath, marketing consultant and author of Celebrating Failure: The Power of Taking Risks, Making Mistakes, and Thinking Big.

Try these six ways to use your organization’s acceptance of failure to build your employer brand: 

1. Include employee characteristics like risk-taking in company values and internal branding materials. 
One company that has integrated a risk-taking message into their employee materials is ConsumerAffairs, which helps companies manage their brand reputation. These materials encourage teams to act boldly. During the hiring process, the company screens candidates for those same characteristics using a culture index survey, says marketing manager Danica Jones.

2. Talk about risk-taking and failure during candidate interviews.
The interview process presents another opportunity to see if potential employees have experience in learning from their mistakes. Serial entrepreneur Fred Schebesta, CEO and co-founder of FinTech startup Finder.com purposely brings up the topic of failure when interviewing job candidates

“It's part of our company values of ‘Go Live,’ where we encourage experimenting, succeeding or failing fast, learning, tweaking, pro-activity and seeing what works,” says Bloem. “I often remind my crew that they haven't made enough mistakes lately, which means they aren't pushing themselves to think and do outside the square."

3. Have leaders talk about their own failures.
Incorporating the acceptance of failure as an opportunity to learn in day-to-day operations begins with leadership. “It takes courage for leaders to model that behavior,” says Paul J. H. Schoemaker, a strategic management consultant and author of Brilliant Mistakes: Finding Success on the Far Side of Failure

As a leader, Schoemaker suggests scheduling a regular meeting in which employees share a mistake or failure – and kick things off by being the first speaker. That type of sharing can help pinpoint people’s mental models about how the organization should operate and their ideals of good and bad decision-making.

4. Find a high-profile way to reward failure.
A great example of this (described in the book, Brilliant Mistakes) is the CEO who created the Golden Egg Award, complete with a silly, gold spray-painted trophy. 

Employees were hesitant to compete for the award at first, but eventually they saw it as a reward for courage, trust and helping the team. The winners would leave the trophies on their desks, where they became conversation pieces for owners who proudly related the tales behind the awards. 

It may take some time for employees to be comfortable sharing mistakes openly, but an extrinsic reward — even a trite spray-painted one — can remind them to “make hay when things go haywire,” Schoemaker says.

5. Make it clear that managers will still manage bad performance.
Throughout the process of wrapping your arms around risk and mistakes, the biggest challenge may be striking an appropriate balance between open ownership of mistakes and endorsement of reckless abandon, says Joe Smallacombe, financial controller at earthkind®, which makes all-natural pest repellent products. “A line needs to be established where employees are held accountable when/if the same mistakes recur.”

6. Encourage employees to think like scientists and hypothesize.
The most important thing in cultivating a culture of calculated risks is the ‘calculated’ aspect, says Andrew Witkin, CEO of StickerYou, Inc., a Toronto company that makes custom stickers and other "sticky" products. “When a risk is being taken it has to be measured from the very beginning with estimates for what is considered a success.”

“We encourage calculated risks by allowing our employees to experiment,” he says. “For example, for a new campaign we may start with small budgets, so our lessons learned don't have an impact on our overall budget or revenues."

Accepting failure as a tool can be a catalyst for uncovering fresh perspective and unique problem-solving strategies in your organization.  To reap the benefits, measure your outcomes of calculated risk-taking and facilitate open discussions of the trial-and-error process with team members. 

Creating a company culture that embraces and learns from failure, rather than avoiding risk-taking, shows an innovative willingness to grow and learn as an organization that will set you apart from the competition.